Today is Sonny Rollins' 80th birthday. In addition to his much-anticipated concert at New York's Beacon Theater this Friday night, a new coffee-table book has just arrived that features lush color photographs by John Abbott and engaging text by Bob Blumenthal. Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins (Abrams) is about as close as you will get to Sonny short of actually meeting or spending time with him. Through the nearly 100 images and probing text, you wind up with a fine sense of who Sonny is as a jazz superstar and as a person. Though Sonny didn't authorize the book, he also didn't stand in its way or hold anything against the authors for proceeding. [All photos of Sonny Rollins in this post by John Abbott]
As a musician, Sonny continues to dominate jazz 61 years after his first recording. Off stage, Sonny is as graceful and as kind as can be. This hardly means he's a soft touch. He isn't. Sonny is about as dainty as a lion tearing across a field. His voice booms with power, energy and excitement, and his thought process is equally vivid and dynamic. When Sonny talks, he develops a point out loud, searching and circling an idea for just the right articulation. When he finds the words that best sum up his view, he goes right in for the kill.
But Sonny also is a gentleman whose manner is as regal as his jazz-world status. This book captures all of these qualities along with his artistic commitment and rich sense of humor—and the book's images and content treat him with enormous respect.
Few photographers have had John Abbott's behind-the-scenes access over the past 15 years. John's jazz images have appeared on the covers of more than 250 albums and magazines, most notably JazzTimes. The pages of this book are filled with close-ups and candids of Sonny, leaving you with a fine feel for the subject. [Photo of John Abbott by Graham Morrison]
Like jazz photographers of the 1940s and 1950s, John comes at Sonny from two directions. His camera is fully aware that Sonny is a legend who needs to be celebrated in a grand way. But John also clearly is a patient photographer, waiting and watching for just the right moments that will reveal something new about Sonny, something previously unsaid. And he succeeds, page after page. No two photos of Sonny capture the same mood or expression.
Bob Blumenthal [pictured] has won two Grammy awards for jazz album liner notes and is a former contributor to the Boston Globe and Boston Phoenix. He has interviewed Sonny multiple times, and his writing here is first rate, never dwelling on worn-thin history or overdoing adulation. Instead, Blumenthal puts Sonny in perspective, explaining tersely and carefully why he's special and essential.
One of my favorite images in the book is of Sonny at a rehearsal in September 1998. Dressed all in black, he's sitting in a folding chair with his saxophone off to the side, wearing dark glasses, with his right leg stretched out while his left is bent slightly. Everyone in the band is watching him intently. The juxtaposition of Sonny in another zone while everyone else is in the here and now is fascinating. This is Sonny at work—naturally cool, completely in control and thoroughly magical.
Of course, it's impossible to pick a true favorite image, since each photo individually is a fragment of the larger portrait expressed by the entire book. Only when these images are absorbed collectively do you have a firm sense of who Sonny is, what makes him tick and how hard he works to create music that's new and exciting.
Going through the book for the first time, I stopped after the third page, realizing that something was missing: Sonny's music. So I pulled three albums that I thought would go best with Abbott's images and Blumenthal's appraisal. The albums I chose were The Sonny Rollins Quartet with Thelonious Monk (1954), Newk's Time (1957) and Alfie: Original Music From the Score (1966). You may have albums you prefer over mine. My point here is this book requires Sonny's music to fully enhance and appreciate the words and images.
Sonny never ceases to amaze, and Saxophone Colossus brings all of his many qualities into fine relief.JazzWax pages: John Abbott and Bob Blumenthal's Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins (Abrams) can be found here.