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A Titan In His Prime: Robert Mugge on Sonny Rollins and Saxophone Colossus (1986)


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By Pete Donnelly.

Left in the wake of rock and roll’s growing popularity, jazz icons essentially stood as living monuments to their revered era. Without mainstream recognition, many of the “Giants of Jazz” nonetheless continued to make vital music. Sonny Rollins, presented in the Robert Mugge film Saxophone Colossus (1986; named after Rollins’ 1956 album), stands not as an historical relic but a living, breathing, current force to be reckoned with.

Saxophone Colossus, newly released on Blu-ray from MVD, begins with a brief interview with Sonny about his mental preparations for performances. Mugge then launches straight into Rollins performing “G Man,” the title track of the accompanying LP to the film. It’s a fifteen-minute blistering foray into virtuosic improvisation. Developed in Rollins fashion, Sonny’s explorations never tire. He’s so hot his trombonist Clifton Anderson doesn’t even expect to get a solo; he merely plays along for the riff upon its regular return. Beautifully shot in the Opus 40, quarry-turned-sculpture-garden in Beacon, NY, Mugge skillfully captures the epic performance. Sonny’s horn and his sidemen at their instruments tell the story. Few talking heads here.

We follow Rollins to Japan where he premiers his “large work” collaboration with Heikke Sarmanto, the Concerto for Tenor Saxophone. Five of the seven movements are included in their entirety. Each movement is visually thematic as they are intercut with collected footage about Japan. Also included are behind-the-scenes rehearsals that give a rare and personal glimpse into the underworking of the Concerto’s themes.

Mugge’s signature is that he boldly let’s the music speak. During each piece there aren’t any interruptions for discussions or back-story. And the shots of both the small combo and the Concerto are so intimate it feels that we’re with Sonny and his band, or the orchestra right on stage. It’s an experience unlike any audience member could ever get.

Capturing inspired performances and delivering them in a high-res transfer, fastidiously color corrected visuals, and an impeccable mix characterize the quality of Mugge’s attention to his medium. Saxophone Colossus isn’t an historical compendium of Sonny Rollins’ career; it’s a showcase of the wide-ranging musical output of a great American artist, way past the genre of Jazz’s prime, yet at the height of his technical and creative abilities. Mugge took out time to discuss the film and its Blu-ray release.

You’ve made many movies on a wide variety of artists. I wonder, do you seek out the subjects or are you reactionary?

It’s always a mixture. Only rarely has someone come to me. Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics came to Bob Palmer wanting to do something in tribute to Mississippi Blues, and Bob said “If you get Mugge to direct it I’ll work with you on it.” So I’m forever in his debt. For years I had wanted to do something on Mississippi Blues. I’d started being introduced to that region when friends of mine were teaching in Film in Memphis and I would go down and show films, and then I made my Al Green film and got that much more immersed in that region. But mostly I’ll come up with a subject that I really want to do and I’ll start trying to figure out how I can fund that.

That’s the challenge isn’t it? Funding.

MVD9687BR (1)I figured out, several years ago that the competition for film related grants was just too stiff and that I was going to have to figure out my own ways to get things funded. That turned out to be mostly either people who needed specific kinds of programming like a TV channel, or a record company would kick in to support their artist who interested me.

But I’m always telling people “Great idea! But if you can’t bring an idea about the funding with it then I’m probably not going to be able to do anything with it.” Mostly though I do things that interest me.

You’re a practical opportunist.

Ha! Yeah that’s one way of looking at it. I realized a long time ago that the world didn’t owe me a living, and that if these films were to be made I had to be the one to convince some funding source in the world that it was necessary that this be made, so it’s just a constant ongoing effort. But you go through periods where you do get funding from some entity like Channel 4 TV in England. In the early 80’s with the Gil Scott Heron film, the commissioning editor for music and I hit it off and we decided we’d want to work together again, and it lead to several films. The same thing happened to me with BMG video.

It’s relationship building.

Yeah, exactly. The relationship with Channel 4 lasted a decade, but usually you’re lucky if those relationships last even five years because people move in and out of jobs, priorities change, all that kind of stuff.

I did get three films out of STARZ. I had found out they acquired broadcast rights to Deep Blues (1992) and Hell Hounds on My Trail (1999), two of my films, and I had been trying to get funding for a film I wanted to call Last of the Mississippi Jukes (2003). What that would be kept changing, and it changed again when STARZ agreed to fund it. They only had enough money to give me to shoot in a couple places, and it also became dependent on me getting Morgan Freeman, who co-owns Ground Zero Blues Cub in Clarksdale, MS. So it became mostly a film about the ongoing elements of what a Juke Joint are.

Something most people don’t think about is the whole network you have to contend with in order to present us a film.

There’s the films you finish and people know and then there’s all the others that got away that would have been so exciting and would have been such a contribution capturing such and such an artist, at the peak of his or her powers. But you’re just thankful for what you’re able to make work.

How did you decide to make the film on Sonny Rollins?

Mugge 02My buddy Francis Davis, the Philadelphia-based jazz critic, who I had met when he reviewed my Sun Ra film, when it came out in Philly… it’s a two pronged thing actually because his then girlfriend, later wife, Terri Gross had me come on her then local talk show Fresh Air, and that led to my interacting with Francis, and so then we would talk a lot about music and whatever. It was early 1986, we were chatting, and he said, “hey, I just interviewed Sonny Rollins and I wanted to tell you that he and his wife Lucille, who manages him, were really nice, really welcoming, and the exciting thing is Sonny’s going to do a large scale composition with a symphony orchestra, doing the world premier in Tokyo.”

Right then I was looking for my next film. I contacted Mike Phillips at channel 4 who was funding jazz; I thought this is something he would love, so I contacted him and he loved the idea. I asked Francis if he thought I could call Sonny and Lucille and talk about making a film.

Happily Lucille liked the idea. She was always the one who would push Sonny to get out there and do stuff, he was more introspective, not always comfortable being in the spotlight other than with his horn. She felt like he was playing the best he had in his career, contrary to what some fans and critics were saying.

Some people are stuck in Hard Bop, like 1959 is the golden year and everything else pales in comparison.

Absolutely. She wanted to prove to them, that as a performer, he had never been better, so she really liked the idea of the film. We all hit it off. I had been warned about Lucille, but you know, the gatekeeper, if you don’t get through the gate you blame the gatekeeper, but she was incredible welcoming; the film would not have happened without her.

How did you decide which concerts to film?

As you know the film included the world premier of the Concerto in Tokyo. I always wished there had been cameras around the first time John Coltrane performed “A Love Supreme,” the first time Duke Ellington did his sacred concerts, there’s been any number of milestone moments in American music where you wished, gee if we had some fuller record of what had transpired and you could see how it changed later in comparison to the beginning.

I had no idea what quality this piece was going to have what it’s going to be like. All I know is that this great artist, who has an unbelievable track record, was trying something new and big. It was going to be in an exotic location, I just had to find a way to cover it. I was only able to afford to bring one soundman and two cameramen with we, which is insane for filming a large orchestra. And that’s why I came up with the notion that we would shoot enough stuff around Tokyo over the course of a week to illustrate each separate movement with a visual theme.

I already knew that I was going to have an unwieldy structure with this film. One way to do it would have been to intercut the movements of this concerto with the rest of it, but I decided to do it more like the Al Green film where I led up the church service as a climactic part of the film, I decided to do the same thing with this, to present the Sonny most people knew through his jazz ensemble work, and then work our way up this special one of a kind project.

The Saxophone Concerto is a great contrast to the small combo concert back in Beacon, NY.

Mugge 03Yeah, I definitely wanted to get him with a more traditional jazz ensemble, which is why we ended up at the concert at Opus 40. There’s a whole story around that, I originally wanted to film him on a boat going around New York City, but the power on the boat couldn’t accommodate our lights. The Opus 40 folks, however, were totally welcoming and great to us.

When it came to the Concerto, hard-core jazz fans didn’t like so much emphasis on other than what they associated with Sonny. Everybody was taken with “G Man,” “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” all that but what’s all this stuff with an orchestra?

But over the history of Jazz there’s been this on going trend of great musicians longing for the status of the concert hall, and the large scale orchestral performances, whereas jazz fans, jazz critics were often pulling them back, no no no, we want you in the smoky night club, the small ensembles and all that.

People don’t always appreciate an artist stepping outside of what’s expected of them.

I’ve gotten the impression over time that people have accommodated themselves to these different sides of Sonny’s work as an artist and are more appreciative of what was captured, especially now. It’s been several years since Sonny’s had to stop playing because of medical reasons; nothing life threatening but it’s keeping him from performing.

While an artist is still strong and out there continuing to play, people kind of treat them in a different way – there’s much more nit picking. But later it’s like Oh my God! Sun Ra’s long dead and thank God this documentation exists.

The Concerto for Tenor Saxophone; at this point the only place to hear it is in the film, correct? 

And it’s looking like it always will be. I talked to Sonny a few months ago, I actually asked him as I have in the past, if we could put that on as a bonus feature, the whole thing for historical purposes. So he had me send him a copy again, and he said no. He said that another recording exists, a TV thing in Italy, which he again did with Heikke Sarmanto. Lucille had been pushing him for years to go in the studio and record it, and get to where he wanted it, he always said he was going to do it but he never did.

How many movements from the Concerto are in the film?

I think there are five of seven. My favorite is the third one in the film. I’m not sure which movement that is. It’s the one with all the shots of all the different people out on the street, the people with the flowers. I just always particularly loved that music and the way all of that came together.

It’s great. And it’s special. In a way your film is the record of that performance.

Yeah, like it or not. Fortunately Lucille loved it, which I was very gratified by, because some people will say ahh your wasting all our time with all these visuals that have nothing to do with jazz. She really felt like the music and the visuals together created a third thing, which she thought was really special.

It’s noble of you, the way you didn’t edit them down, cut them apart and have interviews, and just give excerpts. It keeps the integrity of the performances.

This was just a hand full of years after I made a promise to David Chertock, who was a big collector of jazz clips, classic clips; he would lease clips he owned, and give extensive presentations on various artists. He saw my film Sun Ra (1980), and immediately wanted to acquire it. He said to me, “It would be a real service to music if you could manage to let more of the songs run the whole way through.”

So starting with my next film, Gil Scott Heron in Black Wax (1982), Channel Four Television in England gave me enough money to do that. I’ve tried to the greatest extent possible to do that ever since.

It’s a signature of yours.

It is, and when you get a fourteen-minute song ha! It’s a real challenge to keep that interesting.

That opening is so powerful, I don’t know, I think it’s one of the greatest documentary film openings ever.

Well that’s really nice thank you. A lot of it I have to pay tribute to Larry McConke who shot almost all of my early films, until he became probably the best steady cam operator in the world and started working for top directors: Tarentino, DePalma, Scorsese, Woody Allen, and series like The Sopranos, suddenly he was everywhere. But I had him them and I arranged to have him start on the monument sculpture, pull back to show them playing and then every so often try to get it into the shot to reemphasize that notion of the Colossus. It’s interesting because even just a few weeks later by the time we filmed the three critics in the park, Francis Davis had already heard all about how incredible this song “G Man” was and about what became legendary, Sonny jumping off the ledge and breaking his heel.

And where were you when that happened? Were you watching the cams and thinking, oh my god!?

I was watching the four video monitors from the film cameras, and looking over top of that and suddenly I notice Sonny is pacing beginning to look like a caged animal, he’s getting upset and then at one point he starts as if he’s going to jump, he plays a few more notes and then he does jump, hits his feet and then falls backwards. The whole place goes quiet, everyone sucking in air. I told everyone keep shooting no matter what but I immediately ran around to where I couldn’t be seen but where I could get to him, he ways lying there. He suddenly put up one knee and then he put the other leg across it and started to play, it was the opening to “Autumn Nocturne,” and there was a huge sigh of relief. When the band came in it turns out they were playing the wrong changes so Sonny didn’t want to use it in the film. I asked if we could use just enough to know what it is and then get out, which we did do.

The band was rattled.

Exactly. There was a huge sense of relief but they weren’t quite recovered. Sonny had had his saxophone lacquered, which is risky, because it can change the whole tone of the sax. In fact that is what happened and he later told Lucille that it was like you’d go to play a vowel and a consonant would come out.

It’s prophetic, based on the comments he made at the intro of the film about preparing himself mentally for whatever may come. The Autumn Nocturne solo intro is amazing. His struggle, his wrestling with his tone gave us something spectacular.

I totally agree! Before he goes on he’s thinking about all the different possibilities, once he’s out there it’s all intuitive. There’s always the chance with Sonny you’re going to hear something unbelievable.

Is there a next film we can look forward to?

There’s a few things in the works. I’m actually up… I have no Idea if I’ll any chance at it, but for the position of president and CEO of International House of Philadelphia. Which would just be a great way to come back to Philadelphia. But I’ve got a lot of things going. Right now, the film we did about The January 2007 Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. I made a film Deep Sea Blues (2007)Well, I’ve thought all these years there’s all this incredible performance footage that didn’t get used and so I decided to cut together like three and half hours of that footage and try to finish something. Not release something commercially, but show it on all the cruises, on my website etc. Mostly it’s about preserving all that incredible footage.

Musician/songwriter Pete Donnelly is a founding member of The Figgs, an honorary member of NRBQ, and has worked with Shelby Lynne, Soul Asylum, and Graham Parker, among others. He is currently working on a memoir.

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