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Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus

Sonny Rollins

Robert Mugge’s 1986 film Saxophone Colossus was widely hailed upon its release as essential viewing, not just for fans of jazz but for anyone even remotely interested in the creative process. The newest DVD incarnation, complete with Mugge’s recollections of the joys and challenges encountered during production, reaffirms the film’s many virtues.

Here, after all, is a documentary that, in addition to capturing Rollins in prime form, wielding his tenor in ways that have elicited hosannas from fans and critics alike for decades on end, examines the saxophonist’s methodical approach to performing and improvising. Practice alone may take some musicians to Carnegie Hall, but as Rollins tells Mugge at one point, meditation and visualization are a big part of his pre-concert regimen. Here we also see, during an outdoors concert filmed at the Opus 40 quarry garden in upstate New York, various aspects of Rollins’ persona onstage: the full-throated improviser who seems incapable of physically exhausting himself or depleting the wealth of his ideas; the gifted dramatist, skillfully balancing emotional tension and release; the unabashed entertainer, whimsically stringing together the familiar melodies that pop into his head. (This is also the storied concert in which Rollins jumps off a six-foot stage ledge, only to end up on his back with a broken heel. The misadventure, however, doesn’t prevent him from quickly resuming the performance, albeit in a supine position.)

The quintet concert footage is effectively juxtaposed with an ambitious, large-scale production: the world premiere of Rollins’ “Concerto For Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra,” performed in Tokyo by Rollins and the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra. While it’s not as memorable as the small combo performances of “G-Man” and “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” the orchestral segment sheds light on Rollins’ diverse interests in composing and collaborating. Interspersed are vintage concert footage and chats with critics Gary Giddins, Ira Gitler and Francis Davis, who dutifully (and glowingly) opine, each providing insights and context, as does Rollins’ late wife and manager, Lucille. The final word belongs to Mugge, who gratefully dedicates the new release of this remarkable film in Lucille’s memory.

Originally Published