Just starting your jazz journey? Find out why you need to know about Sonny Rollins.
Im this blog I’m going to tell you why Sonny Rollins is so important, and give you some album and track suggestions that you can use to explore his sounds and technique and understand him as a player.
I’ve also got a transcription for you of a classic Sonny Rollins track that we will be looking at in this blog.
Why Sonny Rollins
Solly Rollins influenced generations of saxophone players who followed him. He wrote a bunch of tunes we now consider as standard language for saxophone players.
Sonny Rollins is still with us a 90 years old! The New York Times called him “the world’s greatest living improviser.”
Sonny Rollins was born in New York in 1930. He great up during the New York jazz scene of the thirties, forties and fifties. By 1954 he was recording with Miles Davis. He played on the album Bags Groove and actually wrote three of the tracks on that album – Airgin, Doxy and Oleo. . These tracks are now considered standards that every sax player learns. So this is an album you should definitely check out to get familiar with Sonny Rollin’s style. Have a listen to his solo on Doxy – it’s so bluesy and a great listen.
Other tracks to check out:
Tenor Madness from the Sonny Rollins album, also called Tenor Madness. On this track, John Coltrane plays alongside Sonny Rollins so you can hear both solos and compare their styles. This album was released in 1956, when Sonny Rollins had already released several albums under his own name, but John Coltrane had not released a solo album yet. So it’s a really interesting moment in music history.
St Thomas from Sonny Rollins album Saxophone Colossus – mega!
Later Sonny Rollins started to explore the “pianoless trio” where he would play with just a drummer and bass player. This is a style that loads of other players adopted too. Great albums to check out in this style include Way Out West and Night at the Village Vanguard.
We’re going to take a closer look at a track from a 1962 album called The Bridge.
At the end of the 1950s, Sonny Rollins took a break. He spent his time practicing. Legend has it that he would go out onto the Williamsburg Bridge, between Manhattan and Brooklyn and he would practice there – for up to fifteen hours a day. This album marks his return to recording and performing.
The track we will be looking at is called Without A Song. The solo on this track is quite advanced, but there’s loads of great stuff in here that you can learn from.
If you’re just starting out with improvising, the first 16 bars of this solo are an interesting place to begin. They are a masterclass in how to develop an improvised solo! It’s got all the things we talk about in Sax School in our improvising lessons:
- Simple melodies
- Great rhythms
- Building on ideas
Then when you’re ready, check out the rest of the solo. As it progresses it gets more complicated and more and more interesting. There’s loads to unpack here.
If you want to learn more about this solo and how to play it, check out the lesson inside Sax School where we break it down, and there’s practice tracks at different tempos. Plus you’ve got the support of our tutor team to help you. Get a 14 day free trial here.
Don’t forget to grab the solo transcription (for tenor AND alto sax).