The Ultimate Sonny Rollins Playlist

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Sonny Rollins is a living jazz legend, a player of outsize impact and cultural influence whose biography reads like jazz lore, even as it continues to be written.

Born in the jazz mecca of New York City in 1930, Rollins showed early promise as a musician, working with giants of the genre like Bud Powell, J.J. Johnson and Miles Davis before he turned 20. Throughout the ’40s, as his profile continued to expand, he developed a glowing reputation as a saxophonist with an uncanny ear for melody and a narrative approach to improvisation, a style that would eventually catch the ear of Thelonious Monk, Clifford Brown, the Modern Jazz Quartet and other seminal acts of the time. But he really began to turn heads as a leader, particularly through his work of the mid-1950s, a period that saw the release of some of his most enduring albums, including Tenor MadnessSaxophone ColossusWay Out West, and Freedom Suite.

His mythic status was elevated when he entered a self-imposed exile in 1959, retreating from the music scene to devote himself to practicing his craft and healing his body. During this time, legend had it that we would play his horn alone on the Williamsburg Bridge for up to 16 hours a day. He emerged, in 1962, a more invigorated player, demonstrating a sharper vision and a clearer sense of purpose. His eagerly anticipated “return” album was appropriately titled The Bridge.

The second half of Rollins’ career was marked by stylistic experimentation and a relentless pursuit of self-expression. In the ’60s, he engaged with the nascent avant-garde scene through oblique angles. It was also during this time that he developed an interest in Latin jazz and other forms of world music. In the ’70s and ’80s, he continued to hone his trademark straightahead style through novel interpretations of the Great American Songbook. But at the same time, he found himself reaching out toward soul, R&B and other forms of pop. In 1981, he even provided saxophone solos for the Rolling Stones album Tattoo You.

Rollins continued to perform well into the new millennium, receiving his first performance Grammy Award for 2001’s This Is What I Do and another for 2004’s Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert). That same year, he was the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. But perhaps the most prestigious award was bestowed on Rollins on March 2, 2011, when he received the Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama.

Like all of the artists we celebrate in our “Ultimate” playlist series, Rollins is a larger-than-life figure whose impact on jazz can’t be distilled into a single playlist. His connection to the music’s storied history is undeniable, and his influence on its future will be incalculable. Nevertheless, we’re proud to present these 25 tunes as our favorites. We hope they’ll become yours, too.

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Listen on: qobuz

St. Thomas
Sonny Rollins, Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, Max Roach
Saxophone Colossus

Oleo
Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins
Bags’ Groove

Pent-Up House
Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Richie Powell, George Morrow
Plus Four

God Bless the Child – Remastered
Sonny Rollins
The Bridge

Tenor Madness
Sonny Rollins Quartet, John Coltrane
Tenor Madness

Doxy – RVG Remaster
Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Sonny Rollins, Percy Heath, Kenny Clarke
Bags’ Groove (RVG Remaster)

Brilliant Corners
Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Ernie Henry
Brilliant Corners (Keepnews Collection)

Airegin – RVG Remaster
Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Percy Heath, Kenny Clarke
Bags’ Groove (RVG Remaster)

There Is No Greater Love
Sonny Rollins
Way Out West (Deluxe Edition)

Without a Song – Remastered
Sonny Rollins
The Bridge

Brownskin Girl
Sonny Rollins
What’s New?

The Bridge – Remastered
Sonny Rollins
The Bridge

Softly As In A Morning Sunrise
Sonny Rollins
A Night At The Village Vanguard (Live)

Till There Was You (take 4)
Sonny Rollins
Freedom Suite

I Know That You Know
Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins
Sonny Side Up

Yesterdays
Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins
Sonny Meets Hawk!

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Sonny Rollins
What’s New?

Namely You
Sonny Rollins
Newk’s Time

Sweet Leilani
Sonny Rollins
This Is What I Do

You Stepped Out Of A Dream
Sonny Rollins
Volume Two

Alfie’s Theme
Sonny Rollins
Alfie

Blue 7
Sonny Rollins, Tommy Flanagan, Doug Watkins, Max Roach
Saxophone Colossus

I’m An Old Cowhand
Sonny Rollins
Way Out West (Deluxe Edition)

There’s No Business Like Show Business
Sonny Rollins
Worktime

Solo Sonny
Sonny Rollins
Road Shows, Vol. 3

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