Jazz Film Review: "Saxophone Colossus"

Aug 4, 2017

A new 4K transfer of the 1986 film “Saxophone Colossus” will be available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital platforms starting today, August 4. 

Sonny Rollins has intrigued and delighted me since I first saw him in concert in 1978.  His power and stamina, his robust improvisational skills, and the joy he exuded on stage still fascinate me. 

Sonny is a humble and spiritual man, always looking to learn and to improve himself.  He feels the weight of the responsibility he carries as one of the last living connections to the creators of modern jazz.

Now 86, Sonny has not performed publicly for the past four years, due to a respiratory illness that may have been caused by the fallout from the 9/11 attacks.  He is still recognized as a jazz icon; there is a campaign underway to have the Williamsburg Bridge, where he famously practiced almost every day from 1959 to 1961, renamed for him.

Mr. Rollins also recently donated his personal archives to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library. 

“Saxophone Colossus” is not a from-the-cradle biography.  The film captures the artist in his full power of creativity as well as in introspection.  Sonny’s energy leaps off the screen.

It is all about the music, specifically about Rollins’ 1986 trip to Japan to perform an orchestral piece he had written, commissioned by the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra.

The Japanese footage is sandwiched between long clips of Sonny’s quartet performance at Opus 40, a rock quarry in upstate New York that was once used as a concert site. 

This was the scene of one of those “Sonny Rollins Legend” moments:  in the middle of his solo, he jumped off the stage, wobbled, fell on his back…and then kept playing the saxophone.   Later it was determined that he’d broken his heel.  He wouldn’t have stopped the concert for that.  Of course he didn’t.

Lucille Rollins, Sonny’s wife for 47 years, provides some insights.  She took over management of his career and production of his recordings in the 1970s.  Lucille had Sonny focus on his strengths and allowed him the freedom he required.  He may not have achieved the level of recognition he has today without her support.

Also interviewed are Three Wise Men on a Park Bench; that is, renowned jazz critics Ira Gitler, Gary Giddins and Francis Davis, pontificating in the breezy sunlight about Rollins’ early years and his current creative period.  Apparently, Stanley Crouch was invited to be part of this panel, but he didn’t make it.  That’s a shame; he would have provided some much-needed spice.

One tiny criticism:  the footage of the Japanese concert is intercut with scenes from the streets of Tokyo, and the flashing neon of the Ginza district.  These scenes seem outdated now, and they're a bit distracting.

Director Robert Mugge is an accomplished music filmmaker.  His impressive body of work includes films about Rubén Blades, Al Green, Gil Scott Heron, Sun Ra and profiles of both Alligator Records and Rounder Records.

The new packaging of “Saxophone Colossus” comes with commentary by the director and two digital audio tracks of the tunes “G-man” and "Don’t Stop the Carnival,” plus a bonus feature “LEAPS AND BOUNDS: Robert Mugge on the Making of SAXOPHONE COLOSSUS.”

Robin Lloyd hosts Mid Day Jazz and Jazz Caliente on KNKX-FM.  She is a member of the Jazz Education Network, and currently serves on the board of the Jazz Journalists Association.