A powerhouse on the saxophone and a pioneer in jazz describes Sonny Rollins, a musician who has played with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, McCoy Tyner, Kenny Dorham, and many other monumental jazz artists. This acclaimed musician, still playing at the age of 81, has recorded over 65 albums, many of which have been tagged as one of the most influential albums in jazz. Of these musically respected albums, is the famous Saxophone Colossus, with Tommy Flanagan on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Now, Saxophone Colossus is widely known for the song “St. Thomas” a calypsos-inspired standard that was named after a Virgin Island. Yet, the Saxophone Colossus delivers more than just this famous tune. After listening to the whole album again, I discovered “Strode Rode”, an up-tempo tune that features a duet between Sonny Rollins and bassist Doug Watkins.
Now, before I share what I learned from this song along with the album as a whole, I wanted to share some history leading up to this album. Sonny Rollins was born in Harlem, New York where he started playing the alto saxophone, later switching to tenor in order to follow after Coleman Hawkins, Rollins musical idol at the time. He was soon captured by the musical revolution called “bebop”. Intrigued by Charlie Parker’s playing, Rollins soon found himself working with Thelonious Monk, a leading pianist known for his dissonant melodies and unique harmonic sound, and Miles Davis, a young trumpeter who strove to experiment with the traditional ideals of jazz. This experience kick-started his career and developed a reputation as a young, fresh saxophonist god.
Yet, Rollins career took a turn for the worse. In 1950, Rollins was arrested for armed robbery and sent to jail for 10 months. It was during this time in Sonny Rollins’ life that he faced hardship and struggles that would only add to his determination as a musician. Arguably, I think Rollins came out of this time with more clarity, identifying his purpose as a saxophonist and his goals as a jazz musician. Moving to Chicago, Rollins became acquainted with Max Roach.
In 1956, Sonny Rollins recorded Saxophone Colossus. Besides “St. Thomas”, Rollins included two swing standard entitled “You Don’t Know What Love is” and “Moritat”, a blues called “Blue 7”, and lastly, a bebop tune, “Strode Rode”.
Beginning with a simple rhythmic melody, this tune portrays Rollins unique ability to hold down time while developing a thematic solo that builds from one idea to the next. At the start of Sonny Rollins solo, he breaks with a strong harmonic idea that later gains energy when the bass comes in. It is then that he begins establishing time by playing four bars of just pure eighth notes. For the rest of his solo, Sonny Rollins methodically and logically constructs his ideas, consistently keeping time while outlining the key centers. For example, Rollins will play one idea ending on a certain key center on a certain range of his horn. Then, the next idea would start at that certain range and carry that same melodic structure. This type of development allows one to refrain from jumping from idea to idea, something that I find many musicians doing.
Sonny Rollins also includes a unique rhythmic component to his solos. Occasionally beginning his ideas on off-beats and inputting drum-like lines in his solo, Rollins understands how to groove and involve those he plays with. Towards the end of his solo on “Strode Rode”, Rollins plays a strong rhythmic line in which you can hear Max Roach and Tommy Flanagan following along by playing that same rhythm. This not only creates a different type of high-energy but it interacts with other musicians. Jazz is a communicative type of music so interaction with other players, even during your solo, is necessary. (Side-note: It also prevents the rhythm section from dying of boredom.)
Overall, “Strode Rode” covers the fundamental components that every musician needs to learn—development of ideas, communication between the rhythm section, playing a strong melody, and soloing with good time. This is what makes Sonny Rollins one of the best tenor saxophonists alongside John Coltrane, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, etc. A recent recipient of the “National Medal of Arts”, an award given by the President, and the 2010 “Tenor Saxophonist of the Year, Rollins is continuing to share his passion for jazz and influence the younger generations.