Sonny Rollins - Tenor Madness

Original Jazz Classics

Release date May 1956

Tenor Madness cover


Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone);
John Coltrane (tenor saxophone, track 1 only);
Red Garland (piano)
Paul Chambers (bass);
Philly Joe Jones (drums).


Tenor Madness; When Your Lover Has Gone; Paul's Pal; My Reverie, The Most Beautiful Girl In The World


Employing the same rhythm section from the great sessions from which the Miles Davis albums "Relaxin' ", "Workin' ", Steamin' " and Cookin' " are taken, and recording at almost the same time (in May 1956), Sonny Rollins produced this most distinctive of jazz albums. Indeed on the opening track, "Tenor Madness", he is joined by John Coltrane in a complete recreation of the Miles Davis first great quintet with Sonny Rollins himself substituting for the great trumpeter.

The first thought is of what might have been; had John Coltrane played on the whole session, what further brilliance would have ensued. But that thought does not dominate for long as it becomes clear that the second great saxophone voice of the era is fully ready to claim his own place in the history of jazz.

The contrast between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane in that sublime twelve minute opening track is more than revealing. You can already hear those characteristic John Coltrane runs that would form the basis of his improvisation for the rest of his career. You could not be listening to anyone else. His stance is already unique, transformatory. Sonny Rollins' playing is coming from a more recognisable tradition, taking the groundbreaking developments of Coleman Hawkins (who just about invented the tenor sax as a jazz instrument and is the great player who inspired Sonny Rollins as a young man to move to tenor sax from alto) and working them up into something he could call his own.

If John Coltrane is about inspiration and radical departure, Sonny Rollins is very much about the development of the Coleman Hawkins tradition. In analogy with modern art, it is Pablo Picasso in contrast with George Braques. There is a very good podcast by Bret Primack that explores the relationship between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

And when you hear the great saxophone players of today (Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, Chris Potter, Joe Lovano, Mark Turner, Greg Osby, Ravi Coltrane, Ted Nash) it is clear that they draw as much on Sonny Rollins as on John Coltrane.

You can hear the Coleman Hawkins influence at its strongest in the way that Sonny Rollins handles the ballads on the album. In 'When Your Lover Has Gone" and "My Reverie" he is very close to Coleman Hawkins' breakthrough "Body And Soul", showing low range vibrato features that break down more than once into breathy closing statements and a romanticism that John Coltrane seldom sought to display. When playing uptempo, Sonny Rollins is more clearly coming straight out of the bebop tradition, as in the opening to "Tenor Madness" which sounds like classic Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie until that opening solo from John Coltrane completely changes the perspective.

Sonny Rollins' handling of everyday tunes such as the closing track "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" is also quite different from how John Coltrane handles "Chim Chim Cheree", "The Inch Worm" or "My Favorite Things". Where John Coltrane takes on the overworn and trite, transforms it through a radical deconstruction of every fibre of the orginal and hence produces a music of refusal that is every bit as anti-establishment as the music of Thelonious Monk, in contrast Sonny Rollins is generally affectionate in his treatment of such themes, attempting to reinvest in them some of the magic that may have been lost through overfamiliarity. He explains some of the background to this in an interview in another of Bret Primack's excellent video podcasts on Sonny Rollins (Volume 2: "Radio and the Movies").

Like many of his peers, the young Sonny Rollins went every week to Saturday morning cinema club. There a generation of young kids built their fantasies around the weekly film serials – Tom Mix, Flash Gordon, The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid – and the other features and the cartoon series. It was a kind of cinematic hegemony. And of course, music was very much a part of that all enveloping experience. He also absorbed the musical themes of the popular radio serials of the day such as the now not much remembered 'Mr Keane: Tracer Of Lost Persons' which used Noel Coward's "Someday I Will Find You" as its signature tune. It was a magic release from the all too bleak realities waiting again outside and it is that symbolic magic that Sonny Rollins has sought to recapture in so many of his treatments of popular songs down the years – right down to using coconut shell percussion on "I'm An Old Cowhand" on his album "Way Out West". In that sense rather than radically deconstruct as with John Coltrane or refuse to obey musical convention as with Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins rediscovers and revalues a popular music almost bankrupted by overexposure, blowing the meaning and wonder back into it. With "The Most Beautiful Girl In The World" he almost succeeds, reminding us of the bankruptcy in the opening statement of the tune only to then open out into a music that seeks to reinstate the wonder. If John Coltrane challenges the American Dream head on, Sonny Rollins, at the risk of embracing the conventional, tries to redefine it in favorable terms.

Born September 9, 1930 and growing up in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem he was immersed in jazz from an early age. He studied piano and alto saxophone from age 11, taking up the tenor saxophone at age 16 after hearing Coleman Hawkins. His neighborhood classmates included Jackie McLean, Arthur Taylor, and Kenny Drew and they formed a band together in high school. By the late 1940s he had recorded and performed with Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. By 1955 he had replaced Harold Land in the Clifford Brown-Max Roach quintet, remaining until 1957 even though his solo career with Prestige and Blue Note had already started to take off. "Tenor Madness" finds him in 1956 at the height of that development and already recognized alongside John Coltrane as a leading voice of jazz post the demise of Charlie Parker in 1955.

He could have become a victim of heroin, but dropped out for two years in 1957 and kicked the habit, famously sitting in the girders of the Washington Bridge playing sax to no-one but himself. On his return, he could have become the victim of the fame that he quickly recovered amidst the harshness of the jazz life but dropped out again for a further three year period in 1969. He studied Eastern religions, he became a vegetarian, he questioned, he came back to do things as he wished, not as the industry dictated. And in that way he has survived, in that sense out-survived most other jazzers. And he feels that he now speaks for them all.

On September 18th 2007, Sonny Rollins played his 50th Anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, and in the same month he played the 50th Monterey Jazz Festival. A great testament at 77 to a remarkable and still unfolding career at the forefront of jazz.

Amongst so much great music, "Tenor Madness" stands out as one of the peaks of that achievement.

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