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Some jazz albums should be appreciated for what they are — good, fun music — rather than considered for their place in the development of this or that or their influence on whatever. That’s how I feel about 1956’s Tenor Madness, whose historical import lies not in its musical significance but in the fact that the title track is the only known recording of tenor saxophone titans John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins playing together. The two were in different places in their similar career paths by 1956, with the younger Rollins actually a little further along; Rollins had already done recording stints with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and was at the start of a stretch of incredibly prolific and excellent work under his own name (we’ve already looked at some of it), while Coltrane was just starting his work with Davis and wouldn’t record with Monk for another year (and his greatest solo work was a few years away as well).
The other notable thing about this album is that Rollins is playing alongside Davis’s “First Great Quintet” rhythm section (Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums), which is ironic in that Davis had wanted Rollins for that group before he landed on Coltrane, but here Davis is absent. Actually it was through those guys that Coltrane came to be on the album. Rollins was scheduled to record an album right around the same time, and in same studio, where Davis’s group was recording what are now called “the Prestige sessions,” so Rollins got his rhythm section to play on his album as well. Somebody then figured it might be cool to get Coltrane to play on a track (he only appears on the title track) and have a little tenor battle, and so Tenor Madness came together.
First up is the title track, and the great thing about this is that there’s really nothing to it. It’s a straight 12 bar blues with a simple melody that gets out of the way quickly so you can get right into the tenor battle. Coltrane leads off, then Rollins, then Garland and Chambers have a go before the saxophones return to trade lines, first with Jones and then with each other. Amazing to hear theses two guys playing together:
The rest of the album is just Rollins and the rhythm section, first on a bluesy rendition of the 1931 standard “When Your Lover Has Gone,” originally written by Einar Aaron Swan:
“Paul’s Pal” was written by Rollins in honor of Chambers and is a standard 32 bar AABA swinger with a heavily bass-inflected melody:
“My Reverie” is another standard, with a classical influence. In 1938, lyricist Larry Clinton wrote a popular song based on the melody of the classical piece Rêverie, which was written by Claude Debussy in the late 19th century. It’s been covered countless times since then, including here:
The album closes with another standard, Rodgers and Hart’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” from their 1935 musical Jumbo. Yes, I had to Google that. Apparently the Broadway show starred Jimmy Durante, and at the end of every show they’d have a circus elephant put its foot on Durante’s head. I guess you have to take some risks for fine theater. Anyway, Rollins takes it from a melodic waltz to an uptempo swing feel. Everybody gets a chance to solo, including the rare bowed bass solo from Chambers: