Besides John Coltrane, I would have to say that Sonny Rollins is my favorite saxophone player. As part of the new Prestige Records Very Best of series, his work for the label is spotlighted on this new single disc, ten-track collection. Like many of the other artists in this series, I think Rollins did some of his finest work for the label. Albums represented on The Very Best of Sonny Rollins include undisputed classics such as Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, Freedom Suite, and Tenor Madness (with John Coltrane). Out of a career spanning over 60 years, those four are quite possibly the best he ever did.
The compilation opens up with “St. Thomas,” from Saxophone Colossus. Besides Sonny’s powerful sax, the track features Tommy Flanagan (piano), Doug Watkins (bass), and the amazing Max Roach (drums). Also included here from that album is “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” which is another very strong tune.
“Tenor Madness” was recorded just one month prior to the songs on Saxophone Colossus, but featured an entirely different quintet. In fact, switch out Rollins for Miles Davis, and you have the same quintet featured on The Very Best of the Miles Davis Quintet. Rollins is joined on sax by John Coltrane, as well as Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), and Philly Joe Jones (drums).
Another truly ground-breaking album was Freedom Suite. Included here is the beautiful Noel Coward ballad “Someday I’ll Find You.” Once again, the support is unassailable. For this, Rollins recorded in a trio format, with Oscar Pettiford (bass), and Max Roach (drums). While “Someday” is a great track, the whole Freedom Suite album belongs in every jazz collection.
Besides his work with the Rolling Stones decades later, one of Rollins’ most interesting collaborations was with The Modern Jazz Quartet. Their 1953 recording of “In A Sentimental Mood” is simply gorgeous, and the contrasts between Rollins and the four-piece MJQ mesh in a most satisfying fashion.
Closing out the set is “I’ve Found a New Baby.” The quintet here includes Hampton Hawes (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), Shelly Manne (drums), and Barney Kessel (guitar). The album was titled Sonny Rollins and the Contemporary Leaders. The interplay between the guitar of Kessel and the sax of Sonny Rollins is fascinating.
Of the various artists featured in this initial batch of the Very Best of series, I think it is Sonny Rollins whose full albums are the most essential. I recommend this collection as a nice sampler, but to be honest, fans would be well-advised to get some (if not all) of the albums represented here - especially Freedom Suite, and Saxophone Colossus.
If anyone besides ‘Trane deserves that latter title, it is most definitely Sonny Rollins. Just check out this great, budget-priced collection if you have any doubts.