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Sonny Rollins: Still Seeking the Lost Chord

By Published: January 13, 2009
New Product

In 2008, more product surfaced for people to hear and see. Rollins latest CD release is a compilation recording from live concerts. Road Shows, Vol. 1 has selections going back as far as 1980, running up to a selection from the highly-touted concert at Carnegie Hall in 2007, that was hailed as the 50th anniversary of Rollins first Carnegie Hall appearance in 1957. That night he performed with his own band, and then a set with two of the best in the business, drummer Roy Haynes (another from the golden era who is still fantastically vital) and bassist Christian McBride.

Also out in 2008 was a concert DVD, Live in Vienne, (EmMarcy, 2008), from a show in the French city recorded in 2006. It's visually outstanding in high-def, and the concert is dazzling on its own accord. The set list is typical of Rollins these days and it's a great documentation of Rollins' band these days.

Also in 2008, the Jazz Icon Series of DVDs featuring historic musicians released Sonny Rollins: Live in '65 & '68. Both are concerts in Denmark, showing Rollins young and strong. Fearless.

Rollins selected the music for Road Shows, a superb disc because live Rollins is always remarkable. He was also the one that decided the ballyhooed Carnegie Hall concert in 2007 would not be released in its entirety, contrary to the original plan.

"I didn't really like my playing on that," says Rollins of the Carnegie Hall show. "It was a big undertaking that night, to put on that concert. We did that ourselves. The concert wasn't produced by somebody else. That was produced by myself and my consortium. It was quite a big undertaking. Unfortunately, I didn't get everything together musically like I wanted to. But I was happy that the event took place.

"It was a big success for a Tuesday night in New York. A lot of people, standing room only. People outside. It was very successful that way. We wanted to prove that musicians can produce their own work, their own concerts. That's what we accomplished with that concert. Musically, I had a little problem because there were some things, inadvertently, that didn't happen. I think the reason was, I was busy trying to make sure that we pulled off this unprecedented event. That's why I didn't put that out (on CD)."

"Some Enchanted Evening," from that evening with McBride and Haynes, is on Road Shows.

The new products illustrate the consistent high quality of Rollins' career, as they cover a wide range of years. They show his touch with a ballad, which is maybe underrated, but is great. They put on view that one of the more striking things about Sonny's playing is his rhythmic force and sensibility. Whether that comes from his Caribbean ancestry, "in the genes," as he likes to say about certain things, or his own intuition—or both—it is strongly evident.

"That's one of my strong points, so they tell me," says Rollins with a chuckle. "It's also a talent, gift that I had. I don't really know how I developed that. When I was starting out, I practice a lot by myself. I would go in the room and practice, practice, practice all day long. I played all by myself ... stream of consciousness play. I ultimately found it was something natural for me to do. In a sense, I'm still doing that."

He adds, "When I'm on the stage performing, I have no thoughts going through my head. That's the culmination of what I'm doing. I practice my work when I'm at home. I still practice regularly, every day. I practice my rudiments and all of these things when I'm home. When I get on the stage, I don't think. I sort of let the subconscious take over. That's what it's all about ... I surprise myself, occasionally, with something that might come out that is striking. I don't really think about whatever else is happening. It just happens."

Rollins may surprise himself occasionally, but for listeners, surprises are abundant.

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Dealing With Difficulties

His mythic status in the jazz world comes from his talent, but is bolstered by a life that has had its share of things that make for legend. His hiatus from the scene in 1959 when he was already considered a titan on his instrument, practicing for hours on end on the Williamsburg Bridge to hone his craft even more, is talked about. Who does such a thing? Another disappearance in the late 60s to study Zen in Japan and then study in a monastery in India, not emerging until the early 1970s, was another curious twist. They appear almost eccentric, which leads people to wonder. He returned both times to slay more people with his playing. That kind of stuff will contribute to a legendary reputation.

But for Rollins, there was no premeditation of these things. No pretense. They were part of a conviction that he needed to do more. Convention be damned. A need to stay in the public eye was not a consideration. He reached a pinnacle in the 1950s as the baddest tenor on the planet. (He "scared the shit out of Trane," at that time, said Miles Davis in his autobiography [Miles; The Autobiography, Simon and Schuster, 1989]—meaning that he opened John Coltrane's eyes to how much more music could be played on the instrument). But leaving the scene was something he felt he needed for his life and he was firm about doing it, despite what must have been advice to the contrary.

He's also had trials and tribulations, including being among those who fell in with heroin addiction in the early 1950s. He kicked it and emerged stronger on the other side. In 2001, he was at extremely close to the World Trade Center on September 11 when it was bombed by terrorists. In 2004, he lost his wife of 47 years, Lucille, who was not only his spouse, but friend, confidant and business partner. "I'm a little further along with having to do whatever I can do," he says now, "but of course, there's still a void."

The tragic attack in New York City was traumatic for the entire nation. For Rollins, it was a first-hand experience, as he happened to be in an apartment he kept in the city, away from his upstate home.

"I lived about six blocks north of the World Trade Center. I was right there. I was down there when the planes came in," recalls Rollins. He was preparing to leave his 39th floor apartment when "I heard a plane ... I thought the plane was flying a bit low. It sounded like a big plane. I didn't look out the window or anything. My view faced north, it didn't face the World Trade Center. After a while I heard this: Pow! It was sort of down by the river. I knew something had happened, so I figured maybe it was a small plane that was down by one of the piers there. I had the radio on when they began reporting it. Then I dragged out our old black-and-white TV and turned it on. Then I saw the other plane go into the other tower. I went downstairs and it was complete bedlam. Women were screaming and running down the streets. It was really quite an experience.

"The first tower came down. We were going to run because we thought if (the second one) came down and fell over, we would have been goners. So we actually started to run when they said it's coming down ... It was just bedlam. (Eventually) I came back upstairs to my apartment. Actually, there was no place else to go. You couldn't leave the area. The immediate area was cordoned off for some blocks. So I went back upstairs. Later all of the utilities were cut, telephone and everything. The next day they evacuated us ... I was kind of shaken."

A concert was to take place four days later at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. "I was so shaken up that I wanted to cancel it, to tell you the truth. My wife insisted that we do it. I was so weak. For one thing, my legs were wobbly because I had to walk down the stairwell with my horn and a couple of belongings, 40 flights. Getting down there and waiting for a bus to come. That was scene the next day when we were evacuated. It was getting dark and all of the ambulances and vehicles and firemen were around. It was a scene out of those old World War II movies in London where they'd have a blitz. That's the only thing I can think of that reminded me of it."

From a school on 16th street where evacuees were taken, Rollins was able to get a ride to his upstate home. "But I was very shaky. I wasn't really in shape to play," says Rollins. "I guess I'm always in shape to play. Once I started playing it was OK, as far as that goes. But I was sort of physically shaken up and emotionally shaken up."

The result is captured on Without A Song; The 9/11 Concert (Milestone, 2005), which is an inspired disc, the band sounding in good form despite things, and Rollins playing is vigorous.

Lucille's death a few years later was more trauma. Rollins admits he didn't touch his horn much while she was ill and failing. He had no motivation to practice. Then there was her eventual passing. She had taken care of all the personal and career business, and to deal with those issues, along with losing his companion, took a strong effort. It even took a while for the saxophonist to walk to his studio about 60 feet behind his house. "At night, Lucille would always turn on the porch light and I could see that from my studio. Whenever I came in, the light would be on. It took me a long time to really spend as much time as I usually spend out there. Just related to the memories and everything."

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