Vinyl Spotlight: Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus (Prestige 7079/7326) [“Gold Label” Reissue]

  • Mono Prestige reissue circa 1964-1971
  • “RVG” etched in dead wax

Personnel:

  • Sonny Rollins, saxophone
  • Tommy Flanagan, piano
  • Doug Watkins, bass
  • Max Roach, drums

Recorded June 22, 1956 at Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey

Well it pays to give the jazz sections in record stores a quick flip on each visit. Though usually less than mediocre, I’ve found that jazz LPs often skip the new arrivals bins — a longstanding staple of record stores — and go straight to the genre section. My method is usually to flip quickly through each of my favorite players’ sections and the beginning of each “lettered” section. This effort usually ends up fruitless but every now and then something slips through the cracks.

That surely was the case when I found this copy of Saxophone Colossus. On the surface, this pressing seems harmless. It serves as evidence of Prestige Records being up to their old capitalist tricks, updating artwork and catalog numbers in a shameless effort to rebrand previously issued material. Prior to this I had seen fake stereo copies of this reissue a few times but this was the first time I failed to see the “stereo” moniker anywhere on the cover. As I examined the front and back of the jacket I thought, “Could this be mono, and better yet, could it possibly be made from the original 1956 RVG metalwork??” And when I slid the LP out of the jacket, I was overjoyed to find the initials “RVG” handwritten there in the dead wax. To sweeten the pot, the record looked near mint and the price tag was in no way suggestive of the colossal sound laying dormant in these grooves. (See what I did there?)

I promptly paid my fare at the counter, and on this hot, sunny Manhattan day, I posted up at a nearby burger joint to grab lunch as I researched the record’s obscure gold labels. While London Jazz Collector places this label run in the rather wide range of 1964-1971, VinylBeat.com makes a narrower yet less specific claim of “mid-1960s”. Discogs has the pressing year pegged down to 1964 (I have no idea what the source of that info is), but to be honest, the vinyl’s lighter weight and thinner, more bendable material makes me suspicious that it would have been released sometime in the ‘70s. The RVG etching and bold sound of this copy nonetheless remain, a fact made even more astounding when one considers that the original metal factory master disks could have been over 15 years old when this record was made.

Although I usually post favorite albums of mine on here, to be honest Saxophone Colossus is a classic that does not resonate with me as much as it does with most jazz fans. The melody and rhythm of “Saint Thomas” is a bit too corny to find its way into my regular rotation, though the jerky rhythm and brisk pace of “Strode Rode” has always appealed to me. But the real allure for a drummer-minded jazz fan such as myself is Max Roach’s pair of solos on side two. Roach’s hands get quite busy at times during “Moritat” (a renaming of the 1928 Weill-Brecht composition “Mack the Knife”, made for the German play Die Dreigroschenoper; “Moritat” roughly translates to “murder ballad”), but Roach plays with tasteful restraint during his solo on “Blue 7”. Engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s recording of drums was always second to none, even in 1956 as demonstrated here. Roach’s consistent striking of the ride cymbal during his solo on “Blue 7” shimmers with glowing resonance and his tom-toms ring with air-tight clarity and precision.

Though Sonny Rollins’ unique character and humor as a soloist became apparent to me many years ago, I can’t say that I’ve studied the breadth of his catalog with the careful attention it most certainly deserves. But with the addition of this record to my collection, Sonny is sure to get more play on my turntable in the future.