In 1986, music documentarian Robert Mugge crafted an interesting film focused on jazz legend Sonny Rollins. Borrowing its title from Rollins’ classic 1956 album, Saxophone Colossus presents a mix of interviews and performance footage. The 101 minute film has been recently reissued on DVD by Acorn Media.
Even though fans will surely want to check it out, I found the material to be a mixture of brilliance and boredom. Perhaps rather than weaving the interviews – with Rollins and his wife, as well as a trio of jazz critics – into the concert footage, the performances might have been better presented without interruption.
Not that it ruins the exuberance of the opening number, “G-Man,” as Rollins dazzles with incredible flights of improvisation. Taken from a 1985 outdoor concert in Saugerties, New York, Rollins and band perform with great energy on a stage made of stones. Despite a few cutaways to a largely disinterested audience, it is an amazing performance. The film returns to this same concert to close the film, though that is where the interviews become more of a nuisance as they disturb the flow of an otherwise engaging romp through “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”
That’s not to say the interviews aren’t of any value. It’s wonderful to hear from Rollins himself. He speaks in an unpretentious, straightforward manner about a variety of topics relating to his art. The critics Mugge consulted are Ira Gitler, Gary Giddens, and Francis Davis. It is worthwhile – especially for the jazz novice – to hear their thoughts on Rollins’ contributions to music. They help put his career in context since the performances the film presents were, at the time, contemporary.
The reason I can’t recommend Saxophone Colossus without hesitation is the “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra,” which occupies quite a large portion of its running time. The piece, performed by the Yomiuri Orchestra in Tokyo, Japan, nearly put me to sleep. Clearly a considerable amount of time and energy was invested in its creation. In fact, we are treated to footage of Rollins composing the piece and there is no mistaking the seriousness of his approach. A large chunk of the piece is presented in the film, though not all of it – and not uninterrupted. Talking head interviews are inserted between movements. Random shots of downtown Tokyo are edited in rather artlessly from time to time during the performance. Honestly, I wasn’t at all moved by the combination of Rollins’ tenor work and the orchestra. While that is merely a matter of taste, I will say the “Concerto” should’ve been presented in its entirety.
The DVD features a recent interview with Robert Mugge, sharing some reflections on the documentary and how it came to be. It’s a reasonably interesting fifteen minute bonus that I was glad to see included.
Saxophone Colossus merits attention based upon its subject being one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. But I feel it’s unfortunate so much of the film is devoted to one of the least involving pieces of Rollins’ work that I’ve heard. On a technical level the DVD is adequate, with a full frame video presentation and PCM audio.