On May 24, 1956, “Tenor Madness” was released. The recording became an artifact of jazz history as it is the only one to feature both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. The project came about as the two musicians were recording separate projects at the same studio. The recording finds the two musicians coming into their own as solo tenor saxophone players. In addition, “Tenor Madness” is simply a mind-blowing jazz album and the title track is a fine example of a tenor saxophone duet.
In the world of jazz, there are few names more recognizable than Rollins and Coltrane. “Tenor Madness” captures them both at early points in their careers. Both had played successfully with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. The work on “Tenor Madness” proved that Coltrane and Rollins could have successful solo careers.
In addition to Coltrane and Rollins, the ensemble on “Tenor Madness” included Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on double bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
“Tenor Madness”: the soundscape
The song begins as if it is in mid-swing. There is a rush of rhythmic saxophone notes that sound as if they could have been part of a player’s solo. But listeners soon understand that the feeling of continuing energy and repeating motifs permeate the song.
In addition to the contrasting styles of Rollins and Coltrane, there is also the shimmery clatter of drums and the nuanced and nimble upright bass that keeps a steady beat regardless of what the saxophones are doing.
At a little over four minutes in, a bright and groovy piano showcase changes the soundscape a bit, as the saxophones take a break. Then, the bass slows down, and only it and the drums play an almost deconstructed version of the song. The piano pipes in to punctuate a few times, but the drums and bass dominate.
Toward the halfway point of the more than 12-minute song, the saxophones come back in full force, and the drums are less shimmery, but retain their energy and gain a powerful quality. They feel and sound louder.
The saxophones’ lines becoming almost dizzying. While it is possible to tell Coltrane’s work from Rollins’, it almost becomes beside the point.
On “Tenor Madness” jazz lives and breathes. Even if it wasn’t historic because of the players involved, it would deserve to be. The song takes on the feel of an energetic dance that is full of swinging limbs and punctuated by jumps and twirls.
Jazz fans of various levels will appreciate the sheer talent and history showcased here.