By Devon Wendell
To many critics and part-time jazz enthusiasts; Saxophone Colossus is considered to be Sonny Rollins’ greatest studio recording. Yes, Colossus brought Rollins much worldwide acclaim, but it also overshadowed one of Rollins’ most masterful recordings: Worktime, recorded a year earlier on December 2, 1955. Saxophone Colossus was much more accessible. Even non-jazz lovers enjoy it to this day. But Worktime is considered to be the superior quartet album by Rollins of that period by jazz musicians and hardcore Rollins fans alike.
At the time, Rollins had just replaced Harold Land as the tenor player in The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet. Both Roach and bassist George Morrow of the Brown/Roach band are the featured rhythm section on Worktime, along with Ray Bryant on piano. This album not only showcases Rollins at one of his many peaks; it also features some of the most inspired drumming of Max Roach’s entire career. This is essential listening.
The band starts things out with “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” Rollins can take a banal show tune or pop hit and make it swing like no one else. Rollins’ angular lines, uniquely shaped phrasing, and sense of humor make me think of Thelonious Monk. If Monk played the tenor sax, he would play like Sonny (which is why Monk and Rollins played so perfectly together). That sense of space, syncopation, harmonic brilliance, and wit are all there.
“Paradox” has a Latin feel to it and sounds as if it might be a precursor to “St. Thomas” from “Saxophone Colossus.” Roach’s polyrhythmic drumming pushes Rollins to swing harder and harder.
Billy Stayhorn’s “Raincheck” is built around a simple motif but Rollins and Roach just fly by the seat of their pants and burn though this number like it’s the last thing they’ll ever be playing on this planet. At times, Rollins plays frenetically and at other moments he chooses a few long tones or two or three fast licks. Rollins’ unpredictability makes the music even more tantalizing.
On the album’s ballad “There Are Such Things,” Rollins stretches out in contemplation, searching for new, unexplored turf on his instrument. It’s the subtle minutiae that makes this one of Rollins’ greatest album ballad performances. Some ideas fly by so quickly that if you blink you could miss them. Ray Bryant’s piano solo is melodic and swinging.
The album finishes with Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me.” Rollins and Roach are on fire on this up-tempo standard. The virtuosity of both men on this composition is unparalleled. This is one of the great hard-bop performances of that entire era. The ideas just keep flowing from Rollins’ horn and Roach’s drum kit.
According to jazz historian Ira Gitler, he sat with Miles Davis in the office of Bob Weinstock (the president of Prestige Records) on West 50th Street in N.Y.C. in early 1956. Gitler had the test pressings of what would become Worktime. Miles was so blown away by every track that he played them over and over, returning to certain lines and segments, smiling and getting off from the incredible music. He even called bebop tenor saxophonist Allen Eager and played the album over the phone, especially “It’s All Right With Me.”
I’m with Miles on this one. I can replay many of Sonny’s lines on any of the five numbers on this album many times over and always find something new. After I heard this record in high school, Rollins became my favorite tenor player and still is to this day.
In case you missed or overlooked Worktime, grab it now or take it off of the shelf and play it loud.