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Artist Profiles

Sonny Rollins: Jazz Cleric

By Published: August 20, 2004
To this day, Rollins remains committed to following the path that he sees fit, and not that which others may prescribe for him. And despite his voluminous accomplishments as both instrumentalist and composer, Rollins still submits to an unending need for evolution and refinement in his art. "I'm just trying to improve. I never feel that I'm quite 'there'. And after playing with so many great musicians, I certainly know what greatness sounds like. I don't feel I'm great yet. I practice every day, not only to keep my chops up, but also to move into some new directions, and maybe make some breakthroughs that haven't been made before."

With so much quality material in the can, one would expect the studio to be among Rollins' favorite domains. Such is not the case. While there may have been an initial fondness for the novelty of recording, the many limitations of the process were quickly brought into glaring view. Time constraints, paired with the permanence of released material, made it difficult for the saxophonist to find comfort, which eventually developed into an antipathy toward the studio experience.

In spite of this, Rollins' last three recordings - Plus Three (1996), Global Warming (1998) and This is What I Do (2000) - were strong, comfortable affairs. Four years have now passed since that last release, and the aging tenor is starting to rethink his previous aversions. "I'm beginning to feel that I want to get out as much as possible. Because, you know, time is so finite. I might live to be 150, but I might not be able to blow a horn. So I'm beginning to soften my attitude a little bit, and I do contemplate doing more recording."

As for touring, Rollins again takes things at pace: "Nowadays, I'm not playing too much because of the rigors of travel. And I've never been one of these guys who can keep up a certain level playing six nights a week. If I do that for a while - and I did - I find that my creative energy begins to ebb. So I need to have time between gigs. I never want to be a person that's playing just to be playing. I always want to be 'into' what I'm doing, and doing it at a creative level that I feel the music deserves."

A hallmark of Rollins' music, especially in live settings, is his ability to balance the structure of a given composition with an openness to the environment in which he plays it. When improvising, he keeps the overall shape of the song in close mind, while also leaving ample room for visceral musings. "When you play in a professional environment, you have to be careful not to fall into patterns where you play things that you know will work. This is always a danger. I know I'll do things, play a particular riff in a certain way, but that's not where I want it to stay. I'll do that for a move, and then use it to move on."

Just like the writer who willfully avoids novels when writing one of his own, or the artist who steers clear of museums and galleries, Rollins has been forced to make certain sacrifices for the sake of artistic lucidity. "It's hard for me to listen to music, because I'm so involved in trying to create my own. It's unfortunate - every time I listen to music or see a live show, it's a rewarding experience. But you can't have everything in life, and I can't go see guys play and still do what I do."

All things considered, Sonny Rollins embodies the essence of jazz' protean spirit. And though his search for perfection may never find its end, his body of work documents a journey like few others have ever undertaken: the journey of a lone, wayfaring Jazz Cleric, who's unique musical gifts are equaled only by the fortunes of longevity, profound humility of spirit and a relentless work ethic.

Photo Credit
Karl-Heinz Schmitt

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