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Sonny Rollins at 90: A Guided Tour of the Saxophone Colossus on Record, By Decade

In Take Five, hear one sterling track for each decade of Sonny’s monumental career.

What that means, of course, is that we’re spotlighting a total of seven tracks, spanning 55 years. They range from broadly celebrated to borderline obscure, but without any of the most obvious picks. (You already know where to find those.) And along with the music, enjoy a handful of photographs of recent-vintage Rollins by WBGO’s own Jonathan Chimene.

Happy 90th birthday, Sonny! Here’s to all the beauty you’ve given us, and the sterling example you continue to set.

“Bird Medley” (1956)

An embarrassment of riches: that’s one way to describe Sonny’s recorded legacy of the 1950s, which includes classic studio albums like Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West as well as landmark live recordings like A Night at the Village Vanguard. Given that we’re in the midst of centennial tributes to Charlie Parker, it feels right to turn to a less heralded entry: Rollins Plays For Bird, which was recorded for Prestige in 1956, with a band featuring Kenny Dorham on trumpet and Max Roach on drums. The opening cut is a fond, discursive medley of familiar themes: “I Remember You” / “My Melancholy Baby” / “Old Folks” / “They Can't Take That Away From Me” / “Just Friends” / “My Little Suede Shoes” / “Star Eyes.” Get all that?

“Doxy” (1962)

Sonny Rollins never made a secret of his admiration for Ornette Coleman, whose open approach to improvising turned the jazz world on its ear at the dawn of the 1960s. For a good stretch of ’62 and ’63, Sonny enlisted cornetist Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins — fresh off their tenure in the Ornette Coleman Quartet — in a band anchored by Bob Cranshaw, his mainstay bassist. There’s an abundance of bootleg evidence of this band; among the sanctioned material is an album called Our Man in Jazz, which includes this loose-limbed “Doxy.” (Listen to how enthusiastically Rollins responds to Cherry’s solo, especially from 1:15 to 1:30.)

“Skylark” (1972)

Sonny Rollins’ Next Album, which broke a six-year recording sabbatical in 1972, should be recognized as one of Sonny’s finest efforts — a relaxed but deeply focused program of standards and originals, with sensitive contributions from the likes of pianist George Cables and drummer Jack DeJohnette. And its high point may be this version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” which includes a gentle double-time section for the solos and, after a restatement of the theme, a magnificent three-minute tenor cadenza. (If you must, skip to just before 7:00.)

“Dancing in the Dark” (1987)

The title track of Sonny Rollins’ 1987 album Dancing in the Dark — not to be confused with the Bruce Springsteen anthem released just a few years prior — is a songbook standard introduced on Broadway in 1931. Opening with a tenor prelude that leads into a brightly swinging tempo, it’s a near-perfect distillation of Sonny’s effervescent brio during this era, in the studio as onstage. He’s expertly met by his working band, with Clifton Anderson on trombone, Mark Soskin on piano, Jerome Harris on electric bass and Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums.

“Biji” (1995)

The definitive Rollins document of the mid-‘90s — Sonny Rollins +3, released on Milestoneintroduces what might be his catchiest tune of the era, a theme that toggles between cruising swing and a form of disco-funk. The band here includes pianist Tommy Flanagan, drummer Al Foster and bassist Bob Cranshaw — and the tune, “Biji,” is such a durable vehicle that it would fast become a staple of Rollins’ tours. (Perhaps you know it from the version featured on Road Shows Vol. 3.)

“You’re Mine You” (2001)

The saga of Sonny’s evacuation from his Lower Manhattan apartment after Sept. 11, 2001 — and the glorious resilience of his subsequent concert in Boston — don’t need retelling here. So let’s just note that Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert was released with a few unfortunate omissions. Among them: this standard, once famously recorded by Sarah Vaughan; Sonny’s brilliant version finally surfaced on the recent compilation Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4.

“Don’t Stop the Carnival” / “Tenor Madness” (2011)

Finally, it would be a crime not to include some concert footage — and what better theme to spotlight than “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” Sonny’s customary signoff? Here he is at Jazz à Vienne in 2011, accompanied by Cranshaw, guitarist Peter Bernstein, percussionist Sammy Figueroa and drummer Kobie Watkins. The video captures some of the roving exuberance of this moment in a Rollins concert, and his tenor solo is a robust delight. The crowd is so enchanted that Sonny adds “Tenor Madness” as an encore, swinging his way to the finish line. Adieu et bonne vitesse!

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.