Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins
The first thing one notices about Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins is, of course, the cover. The album after which this hardcover, coffee-table-style book is named was recorded in 1956—Rollins, at the time, was 25 years old. Yet the black-and-white photo that graces the dust jacket depicts a considerably older man, his beard white, his fingers and face bearing the wrinkles apropos of his present age. It’s a tip-off that what we are about to read is not a biography (although biographical elements are certainly a large part of it), but, as its subtitle makes clear, a study more concerned with who and why than when.
Although the text, by veteran jazz journalist Bob Blumenthal, is inspired by that career-defining recording of more than 50 years ago, the author uses Saxophone Colossus as a pivot point, delving into Rollins’ motivations and methods from throughout his lengthy career. Blumenthal frames his essays using each of the five compositions on the original album as a chapter title: “St. Thomas,” Saxophone Colossus’ calypso-based lead-off track, provides Blumenthal with an opening into Rollins’ relationship with rhythm; “Moritat” focuses on his repertory choices and more. Blumenthal’s familiarity with Rollins, and his insight into the body of work, is palpable throughout.
But Saxophone Colossus, more than anything, is a photo book, and a stunning one at that. John Abbott has shot Rollins in numerous settings, not during the early period represented by the namesake album but in Rollins’ more recent senior years. The photos that occupy the bulk of the volume, both in color and black-and-white, depict an artist who has already proven himself but never takes his iconic status for granted. At home, onstage and in leisure situations, Rollins’ visage throughout these photographs can best be described as contented. Often he appears expressionless, not bored but simply at ease, rapt in performance or otherwise engaged in the day-to-day business of being both working musician and icon.