Wednesday, October 5, 2011

October 5: Sonny Rollins, "Blue 7"

Artist: Sonny Rollins
Song: "Blue 7"
Album: Saxophone Colossus
Year: 1956

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Though it was not as present during the early years of its existence as it is in modern times, one cannot deny the long-standing stereotype that jazz music is somehow "only" for intellectuals and is not created to be enjoyed by a mass audience.  Many argue and assume that there is some "deeper" comprehension that is necessary to experience jazz music, and while many may wish this to be true, the fact of the matter is that jazz music is as accessible as any other genre.  All across the history of jazz, there are countless examples of artists making a conscious effort to prove this point, and there may be no other figure more important to such a pursuit than the great Sonny Rollins.  Not only did Rollins create some of the most exciting and innovative jazz music in history, but it was the way that he constructed many of these arrangements that enabled the style to crossover more into the mainstream than nearly any other performer.  The fact that he was able to have such appeal without sacrificing any of his talents or any of the fundamentals of "great" jazz is a testament to his exceptional vision, and there may be no finer document of his talents than his absolutely perfect 1956 release, Saxophone Colossus.  Filled with five brilliantly performed pieces, every side of his ability is on display, and there are few compositions from any period of jazz music that can compare to the albums' closer, Sonny Rollins' phenomenal 1956 recording, "Blue 7."

Having honed his skills behind some of the biggest names in jazz, Rollins works in a similar manner on Saxophone Colossus, as he surrounds himself with a group of the finest musicians of the era.  The sound on "Blue 7" seems to revolve around the truly perfect drumming, and this performance is not all that surprising, as it is being played by none other than Max Roach.  The way that Roach is able to move the rhythm around so subtlety is one of the keys to the almost mesmerizing appeal of "Blue 7," as he shows just how moving one can be without being overly aggressive.  This mood that Roach creates is brilliantly complimented by bassist Doug Watkins, and it is the combination of their playing that gives the track its unmatched "laid back" feeling.  These two elements seem so relaxed and at ease that one cannot help but feeling similarly, and it is this mood that completely draws the listener into the song even after hearing it countless times.  In many ways, it is this rather unique musical tone that defines what it means to be "cool" within the world of jazz, and it is the flawless way that the band deploys this sound which makes "Blue 7" such a classic all these decades later.  It is also the way in which this mood remains completely uninterrupted, even during the solo sections, that sets it so far apart from other jazz recordings, and their performance here makes a simple argument for Roach and Watkins standing as one of the finest rhythm sections in all of music history.

Yet it is the other half of the band that takes "Blue 7" and pushes it to truly unparalleled heights, as pianist Tommy Flanagan gives perhaps the finest performance of his career.  Serving as a fantastic contrast to the sound of Rollins, Flanagan shows a great understanding and skill for "where" to place his fills, and the energy between him sound and that of Rollins is second to none.  Again, the relaxe attitude of the song comes through clearly in this element, as the two seem to effortlessly pass the lead phrase back and forth throughout the entire eleven-plus minute runtime of the song.  However, there is rarely a moment anywhere on "Blue 7" where the focus is not on the playing of Sonny Rollins, and there is no question that he is leading this legendary recording.  While others may have made a bigger name for themselves on saxophone, one can easily argue that there was no other performer that had an even remotely similar approach to playing as Rollins, and he rarely sounded as confident or outright perfect as he does on "Blue 7."  Easily incorporating elements of blues music as seamlessly as those from the "swing sound," there is a diversity within the performance of Rollins that quickly becomes the defining aspect of the song, and there is simply no other recording in jazz history that sounds similar.  It is the way that Rollins is able to spin this wonderfully complex arrangement in such a relaxed and unassuming manner that is the essence of his style, and there is no question that "Blue 7" is his finest example of his signature sound.

In many ways beyond the vision of any other jazz musician in history, there seems to be a conscious effort to keep the orchestration simple in sound all across "Blue 7."  However, there is never a moment where the performances seem anything less than stellar, and it is the fact that these two realities are able to co-exist that prove the unique genius that "is" the music of Sonny Rollins.  Even for those who are not well versed in jazz music, the mood and musicianship all across "Blue 7" are understandable, and yet for those who are jazz fans, it is just as enjoyable due to the brilliant textures and solos that each musician brings to the song.  There is no question that this was a conscious approach by each of the band members, as they are able to find a way to play at their finest, whilst leaving the somewhat stereotypical "air of pretension" that one can find on some jazz recordings of the era.  This ideal matches perfectly with the overall laid-back feeling that comes from "Blue 7," and this is much the reason that more than half a century later, the song remains as fresh, relevant, and appealing as ever.  The relaxed tone of the song allows for each member of the quartet to truly explore the core theme as fully as they wish, and it is perhaps this "freedom" that pushes the song to such great heights.  Regardless of "how" or "why" it happened, there is no question that the song brings with it a completely unique and appealing mood, and there is simply no other song in history that measures up to Sonny Rollins' magnificent 1956 recording, "Blue 7."

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