Acorn Media
Release date: January 27, 2009
MSRP: $24.99

Full disclosure: At one point in my novel Big City Bad Blood (Editor’s note: Do yourself a favor and buy this book!), Ray Dudgeon needs a spiritual lift, and he listens to Sonny Rollins. Rollins is my favorite living tenor sax player. Suffice it to say, I’m a very big fan.

Robert Mugge’s 1986 documentary chronicles two very different Rollins performances, and provides remarkable insight into the man and his methods.

The first show, a beautifully filmed outdoor concert at Opus 40 in Saugerties New York, features Rollins with his regular quintet. As the film opens, we find Rollins launching into a 15-minute solo that Mugge wisely leaves intact. This breathtaking solo provides ample evidence of why many consider Rollins the world’s greatest jazz improviser. The Opus 40 concert footage alone is worth the price of the DVD, and then some.

The second concert, filmed in Tokyo, is the world premiere of Rollins’s Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra. For Rollins fans, this is fascinating stuff, but it is not as well filmed (Mugge only had two cameras and had to cover with b-roll of general “life in Tokyo” footage that seems incongruous with the music). Still, it offers a rare glimpse of a musical genius stretching out and bravely tackling new forms. And there are moments of stunning beauty in it.

Throughout the film, Mugge weaves interview footage of Rollins and his wife/manager Lucille, and this material does a great job putting the music in context and revealing the man behind the horn. Rollins frankly addresses his early struggles and talks about his self-imposed exile from the jazz scene, while also taking justifiable pride in what he’s achieved. He sees his music, and himself, as a work-in-progress, and you cannot help but be impressed by his honesty and humility.
Also woven throughout the film is commentary by three leading jazz critics. These interviews represent an articulate love-fest, but they give additional insight into Rollins’s methods, and help place him in context of the Jazz pantheon.

For the final sequence, Mugge returns us to Opus 40 as Rollins brings the house down with a fantastic performance of Don’t Stop The Carnival. A perfect capper to an extraordinary experience.

Quibbles: Cutting away from the solo in Don’t Stop The Carnival to see one more interview clip was a mistake. That was such a beautiful solo; we should’ve been allowed to hear Rollins build his ideas all the way to their conclusion. Perhaps the Opus 40 concert will someday be released as a complete concert film; if it is, I will be first in line to buy a copy. In the meantime, this DVD is a must have for all Sonny Rollins fans, and jazz fans in general. I suspect it will even convert some of the jazz-curious.

Order Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus.

Sean Chercover

Sean is the award-winning author of Big City, Bad Blood and Trigger City. I strongly reccomend both novels to anyone that likes good P.I. fiction. Sean is a hell of a writer as well as a top notch fella.
Check out Sean’s website.
Sean can also be found at The Outfit, a nifty blog featuring not only Sean, but Barbara D’Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Kevin Guilfoile, Libby Hellmann, Sara Paretsky and Marcus Sakey. Talk about getting a bang for your buck…except you don’t have to pay to visit the Outfit. But if you did, it would totally be worth it.