Known simply as "The Colossus," saxophonist Sonny Rollins more than lives up to his title with a prolific career stretching over 60 years. The jazz virtuoso rose to the heights of his art form on his own terms, electing at key moments in his career to retreat from the public and reinvent his sound. Many of the master improviser's finest recordings have been live, capturing the mercurial nature of his legendary performances from which both musician and audience have emerged exhausted yet exalted.
Laying a musical foundation
Theodore Walter Rollins was born in 1930 in New York City to West Indian parents. He grew up in the Sugar Hill neighbourhood of Harlem, not far from the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theatre or the doorstep of his idol, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. The young musician's first instrument was the piano. Inspired by Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, Rollins switched to the alto saxophone, and, at 16, finally settled on the tenor.
While still a teenager, he came under the wing of pianist Thelonious Monk and was introduced to the groundbreaking sounds of bebop. Before he turned 20, Rollins had already recorded with some of the giants of jazz: Babs Gonzales, J.J. Johnson, Bud Powell and Mile Davis.
In 1956, he joined the famed Clifford Brown and Max Roach Quintet. Then, in 1957, Rollins formed his seminal pianoless trio. Around that time, he released a series of landmark albums that solidified his reputation as one of the most innovative and talented saxophonists in jazz: Tenor Madness (1956), featuring his only recording with John Coltrane on the title track, Saxophone Colossus (1956), which included his opus, St. Thomas, and Way Out West (1957).
Building upon the jazz pantheon
And yet, feeling unsatisfied with his playing and overwhelmed by his mounting success, Rollins decided to withdraw from public performance in 1959. He triumphantly returned in 1961 with The Bridge, an album inspired by his favourite practice spot: the Williamsburg Bridge.
By the mid-1960s, Rollins was delivering live sets of epic proportions, featuring his dazzlingly encyclopaedic, stream-of-musical-consciousness solos that left spectators breathless and critics at a loss for words.
The restless musician took another sabbatical in 1966, following his interest in Eastern philosophies to Japan and India, and didn't resurface until the early 1970s. His (second) comeback was marked with the aptly titled Next Album (1972), his first release in six years and a turning point in his career.
The "Colossus" stands tall
Having signed with Milestone, Rollins embarked on another prolific recording period. He began merging contemporary with fusion jazz, integrating calypso, funk, pop and R&B elements into his work and adding an electric edge to the sound. In 1981, the saxophonist was invited to play on the Rolling Stones's Tattoo You.
The following year, Rollins made his debut at the Festival for its third edition. He would return many more times, averaging one appearance every three years over the next quarter century.
With the release of the documentary Saxophone Colossus (1986) and its accompanying soundtrack G-Man, Rollins proved, yet again, that he was a jazz giant with a capital G. In 2004, he won the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Two years later, he released Sonny, Please (a favourite phrase of his late wife of 48 years, Lucille, who died in 2004) on his recently launched record label, Doxy.
One of the last living musicians of his generation, the revered saxophonist has referenced his peers and mentors in performance, saying once "I feel a holy obligation to evoke these people." Rollins has had an unquestionably similar effect on the players that followed.
In 2010, the legendary saxman became the 17th recipient of the Miles Davis Award.