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Sonny Rollins: Still Seeking the Lost Chord

By Published: January 13, 2009
On Hiatus

It was during his association with many of the jazz legends that he decided he needed to regroup. Perhaps a bit overwhelmed, he questioned his rapid rise and felt he had to do more to stay at that level and continue to earn that kind of respect. Disappearing abruptly can be dangerous in itself, In the eyes of a fickle public, out of sight can mean out of business. But Rollins followed his convictions. He lived on the lower east side of New York at the time, in a neighborhood where he and Lucille were comfortable. He wanted to woodshed, but didn't want to bother his neighbors.

On a walk one day through the neighborhood, his meandering took him to the Williamsburg Bridge that crossed the East River into Brooklyn. There were boats, the subway, cars. Constant noise. It was a place where the sounds of a tenor sax wouldn't raise any fuss. He says there were times he was there 15 hours a day, any time of the year.

"I had always been interested, at least from the mid-1950s, I began becoming interested in philosophy and esoteric groups like the Rosicrucians and all these things. I got into yoga, eventually Buddhism. All of those things. I began seriously studying those disciplines in the mid-50s. So I went on the bridge. That was something I pursued all of my life. Now it's part of who I am. I had a nice time when I studied Zen in Japan, studying yoga in India for a while."

The study in Japan and India was about a decade after the bridge and again took Rollins away. But he busted back with more recording and new bands. His playing was strong and he didn't loose a step. His fans eagerly awaited his recordings and he was still a master. A long association with the Milestone/Fantasy record company ensued. He won Grammys on the label for This Is What I Do (2000) as best jazz album, and for best jazz instrumental solo on "Why Was I Born" off 2005's Without a Song; The 9/11 Concert. (He also has the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences).

Maybe his study of yoga, religion and eastern philosophy helped keep the tenor man vibrant enough to pursue his musical goals into his late 70s. But, "Maybe it's also genetics," he admits. "In the mid-50s, I began to get a consciousness about trying to keep my body healthy. I got into exercise. Eating right. Eating health foods. Stopping smoking and all of these other detrimental habits, which were part of what everybody did and I was one of the people that did them. I've gotten over all of those things and it probably had some positive effect on me. It could be just that I have good genes, that I'm able to still play. But I am definitely a person who was aware a long time ago of trying to eat correctly, exercise correctly."

Looking back at his long career, accolades don't go to Rollins' head. He's appreciative, but his own standard for what constitutes good or great playing is different—higher—than his audiences or critics. In his artistic core, in his specially creative mind, he's pushing for something more. Probably, like all artists on that high level, something that may not even be attainable.

"I'm one of these people that's never satisfied with what I do. I'm always trying to get a better cut, a better sound," says Rollins. "However, I realize now that I probably don't have enough time to get to a point where I can be completely satisfied. I'll never be that. But even a modicum of satisfaction, I don't think I'll ever get there. So it's just a matter of trying to find something interesting enough to keep me relevant and keep me able to have something current to say when I'm playing."

There are some songs that Rollins wrote, more current ones, that are still in the band's book. But classics like "St. Thomas," "Airegin," or "Oleo" aren't things he's apt to look back on. "Artistically, I get kind of bored with some of the stuff I've played. I've played a lot of songs, of course, in my life... I always try to keep current.

"If you're going to play life, if you're going to mirror some aspect of life, as you should do in a creative art, then I don't want to always play something I played 30 years ago. Even though it might be good and people might like it and it might fit in with the times in some way. I might have an oldies-but-goodies club coming to see some things. But in my case, I'm not that type of player. Jazz is not that type of music, that I play. I play more of a contemporary, improvisatory thing where it's always changing. I'm not a guy that plays one song that you can play forever, you know what I mean?

"I try to find something that, in my mind, in my creation, is more reflective of modern times, as terrible as they are. For me, I'll always be trying to do something different. Although, as I said, I know I'm never going to get to the satisfaction that I wanted. But that's OK, as long as I keep trying to be creative. That's what I'm trying to be. To keep being able to do something which is not repetitious. If I get to that point, then I know I'll stop.

"But I don't think I will, because I'm the kind of guy that likes to practice every day and I love playing."

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