On May 24th, 1956, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins had pulled off a daring art theft, right under the nose of the already legendary Miles Davis: he had absconded with Davis’s entire band. Holed up in Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack, New Jersey studio, Rollins had brought together what is now considered to be one of the greatest jazz ensembles that ever existed, minus their leader, whose place he would fill for the day. Only a year earlier, Davis had tried to steal Rollins himself, announcing to the world that the saxophonist would be a part of his quintet before he had actually worked things out with Rollins. Davis had been instrumental in promoting Rollins’s solo work, and their early collaborations proved that they were natural and exciting companions. Still, when the time came to join up, Rollins was busy indulging his perfectionism, struggling to get his playing to a level he could be confident of (not a mean feat, as he was very self-critical), and had passed on the opportunity.
Clearly, he must have been curious what might have been had he accepted, and certainly realized that Davis’s men—pianist Red Garland, drummer Philly Joe Jones, and bass player Paul Chambers—were the best in the business. Nothing less would suffice for his own album, and Tenor Madness is the end result of Rollins’s audacious heist, which paid off handsomely. This all new remaster has been helmed by the original engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, who has been working to enliven and enhance CD reissues of dozens of classic jazz albums. His work here is much appreciated, as the depth of fidelity he coaxes out of the masters allows the listener to examine the parts in finer detail and gives a fairly accurate portrayal of what happened on that day from someone who witnessed it first-hand.
The five-track album is overwhelmed by the immense opener that bears its name, “Tenor Madness”. When Rollins passed on Davis’s offer in 1955, the saxophone role in the quintet had gone to John Coltrane—not too bad for a second choice. Coltrane was visiting his bandmates during the Rollins session, and though he was aware that there wasn’t really a need for his services, he brought his instrument along anyway. It didn’t take long before the Giant and the Colossus were wailing away at one another, trading fours and kicking up a storm of swinging, swirling notes in what became a thirteen-minute musicians duel, and one of the most dense and intense meetings in the history of music. The head is extremely simple, a narrow bluesy melody that does little to foreshadow the “Tenor Madness” that would follow; but it does get out of the way as quickly as possible to allow Coltrane the first solo volley. He casts thick sheets of notes out of his saxophone, squeezing all the negative space out of the air and filling it instead with cluttered, ever-rising jags that give Rollins ample opportunity to dive off of when he launches his own solo. Red Garland nearly steals the show around the four-minute mark, which hardly seems fair—this is supposed to be about the tenors, after all—but can’t be helped. He drops a startling opening cascade that both references the earlier saxophone torrent and completely erases it from memory for a brief moment. As the two saxophonists begin to trade fours in the tail end of the piece, Rollins’s personality begins to show itself with greater vibrancy, his loose, playful contributions poking at Coltrane’s cool demeanor and eliciting some true and engaging dialogue.
And like that, it’s over; the only record of the two foremost saxophonists of their era lasts a relatively brief thirteen minutes. Coltrane departs and leaves Rollins to his own devices—what daring Rollins had to put such a strong, engrossing climax at the very beginning of his album, the rest of which seems subdued by comparison. Perhaps he wanted to give the impression that he played Coltrane right out of the studio before getting down to business. “Tenor Madness” packs a lot of punch, but doesn’t completely knock out the rest of Rollins’ repertoire on the album.
With the able foundation of Mr. P. C. and Philly Joe, Rollins settles down into “When Your Lover Has Gone”, whose sequencing just following Coltrane’s exit from the album must be more than just serendipity. It’s a lovely song, and the sedate, breathy smoothness of the track is a welcome cool-down. Rollins, Garland, and Chambers all turn in silky solos, only to be overturned by a pounding, staccato drum solo from Jones, who bashes his way out of the tempered tone of the song. It’s jarring, but the brief bitterness only enhances the flavor and sweetness of what surrounds it.
“The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” was old hat even in 1956, a Rodgers and Hart waltz that Rollins felt compelled to ultimately stretch into 4/4 once the initial flirtations with the melody were over. It’s another contrast; the stiff and old-fashioned waltz taken from a 1935 musical plunks along for a few bars before being utterly obliterated by Rollins’ modernized and captivating update. Twenty years of musical progress can be heard ticking away in the drifting, spacey moments between the change-over, and what was once formal, stilted, and distant is now a flowing nightclub serenade.
This reissue of Tenor Madness provides a great opportunity for listeners to discover Sonny Rollins, who may not have as much popular name recognition as his contemporaries Davis and Coltrane despite his comparable talent and critical renown. Now 77 years old, Rollins continues to tour and record, one of the few living connections to a truly remarkable time in jazz and in music in general, an icon whose breath still flows through his saxophone, and in whom this reissue can breathe new life into fifty years later.