Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins by Aidan Levy

A whopper of a book weighing in at over 700 pages. Avoid reading this in one sitting on a hard chair unless you must. And read it you must. In this instant reaction age, you can't instantly react to any of this unless you invest the time. That …

Published: 16 Dec 2022. Updated: 44 days.

A whopper of a book weighing in at over 700 pages. Avoid reading this in one sitting on a hard chair unless you must.

And read it you must. In this instant reaction age, you can't instantly react to any of this unless you invest the time. That says more about our age than the necessary time spent on essential, spiritual, absorption.

Reflecting upon and even more vitally listening to the music of Sonny Rollins amounts to both. And you will want the book to soak in at considerable length even if you have fair knowledge of Sonny Rollins' work and long after you have put the book down.

His work is certainly a mighty ocean to immerse yourself in as regularly as often like John Coltrane's, the music of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

The detail is relentless. But few pages are dull even when Levy goes into laundry list mode. Certainly the book sends you immediately in to the music as the personality of Walter Theodore "Sonny" Rollins beams through and the remarkable spirit of the Caribbean sparkles and entices.

It is still deeply depressing that many of our greatest jazz icons, and of course Sonny Rollins is one of the greatest - it didn't need the author to tell us that - still don't get written about at length regularly or at all. Contrast that with books on even modestly interesting rock stars that appear as reliably as rain. The point is we don't need a hagiography (and this book isn't one at all) but we do need more detail and knowledge in long form.

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Certainly this remarkable book by US writer Aidan Levy (who has written on Lou Reed, edited Patti Smith and is a doctoral student at Columbia University) begins to fill that gap. It is a considerable achievement. What's the writing style like? In terms of authoritative voice and easy command of chronology and discography the great Dylanologist Clinton Heylin springs to mind because Levy, like Heylin, patiently describes his subject meticulously and documents the narrative without getting sidetracked and knowing instead what to concentrate on. There is no sense of cheap theorising.

You get a lot of personal well documented and annotated detail that sheds a light on what makes Sonny tick. The most interesting parts are around the time of ''the Bridge'' sabbatical which continues to fascinate jazz fans and is part of the enduring mythology of the music.

Sonny's perfectionism and searching within himself returns as a theme time and time again. His interest in yoga and mysticism, the low points in his life when he went to jail, the sheer physicality of his method, the conflict between art and the demanding commercial considerations of the music industry and its heavy toll made on performers and the racism that rampages through America, are all reflected upon pertinently and intelligently. The alpha and omega of it all is that Sonny Rollins is a radical artist who has distilled the human condition into his art hence his global appeal whether connecting with fans in the US, the Caribbean, the UK - locked in after hours at Ronnie Scott's to work on the music for Alfie - and the world. He knows more than most, and the book provides ample proof, that in his own words: ''Jazz is a music of freedom because we had to create. We had to fight, we had to struggle. We had to break down barriers.''

Published by Hachette in the UK on 19 January

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