Sonny Rollins: Still Seeking the Lost Chord
Improvising new music on the spot, that pursuit of an interesting and inspired creation, is still a quarry that Rollins is keen to hunt. How he negotiates that process, its triumphs and, possibly, failures that are gallant for the mere audacity of the attempt, is what sparkles at the essence. At that point, the things he's learned are so innate that he tries to erase them from his immediate thought progression and allow that which is unlearned, unplanned, perhaps even unknown, to come in.
"That's the ultimate experience. When I'm really playing, and everything is right, and I'm really playing good and the band is with me and all that stuff, yeah, you do forget everything. In fact, people used to ask me, 'Do you think of the chord progressions when you play.' And I would tell them: No, I don't think about anything. When I'm really playing, you don't have time to think, because the music is coming too fast to think about it. There's no time to think You just are there. And the sum of your experience provides whatever comes out. There's no time to think and contemplate, 'Well I'll play this here. Or I'll play that there.' It's very difficult to do that.
"When you're really on, things are just happening and those are really great times. You're not thinking about anything. You're really transported. It's really... you go into another state. It's sort of like a spiritual state, a state you'd get into if you were intoxicated. Any kind of a euphoric state would be similar to it. But this is better, because it's so grounded in reality. You don't have to use peyote or something to get there. You know what I mean? You get there without having to do that. It's alright if people want to do that, but it's great if you can get to that stage without having to do anything, you know?"
What constitutes a "good night" is different for Rollins than it is for audiences. He is self-critical. He's also acutely aware of the process and the particulars, so he knows when he's not hitting right, even if it's acceptable to listeners. "The people say: Oh, that's great. When I say that to myself, when I feel I had a good night, you can rest assured that everybody knew I had a good night. I'm a professional. So I have to give the people something. I'm not in the business of having bad nights for my audiences. I wouldn't be able to be in business long. I wouldn't be asked to perform... We all have our ideal of what it could be. But as professionals we have to reach a certain level that is acceptable to the audience. Hopefully we have a higher standard. An artist should have a higher standard of what he wants."
Says Rollins, "You know the old story: If I don't practice one day, I know it. If I don't practice two days, the band knows it. If I don't practice three days, the audience knows it. Something like that."
Rollins' intention to stay current doesn't involve trying to catch on with the latest craze. Some (not all) albums jazz musicians made in the 70s to with pop sensibilities are abysmal. Rollins will use beats and rhythms from different cultureshe usually carries percussionist Kimati Dinizulu in his bandbut don't expect him to lay down sax tracks over hip-hop or rap. That doesn't mean he doesn't appreciate some of the genre, especially in its more raw state.
"I think the hip-hop stuff is probably sort of on the raw edge of jazz. It has a lot of the spontaneous elements in a lot of what they're doing... They're not playing a lot of instruments, which is different from what we're doing. I tend to look on it in a positive light. I think it's OK. I don't think there's anything antithetical about it to jazz. I think Charlie Parker could probably play with those guys. It's just a matter of... the medium is the message, so it's not that a great saxophonist couldn't play with them. It's that a great saxophonist would be not part of what they're doing. So even though it would fit, it probably wouldn't be done or wouldn't be allowed to be done. People would think it doesn't fit... Some of the stuff those guys are doing amounts to riffing, in a way. Vocal riffing, which is not that far from some sort of jazz."
Musicians he does appreciate today include saxophonists James Carter, Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett, David S. Ware, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. But Rollins doesn't hang out in New York on the scene anymore. "People send me CDs, but I don't get to listen to all of them. If the question is: Are there people up and coming that I think are good, the answer is definitely yes. I think jazz is an art form that's always going to appeal to people. The only problem is whether the society makes it viable for young people to get into jazz, offers enough opportunities. But as far as people coming up that can play jazz, sure."
When he listens to other musicians, "I listen for everything. Sound is very important... In the sax, sound is the first thing you hear. There are a lot of guys playing a lot of stuff, but if they don't have a prominent enough sound, what you're playing is diminished... But I listen for everything when I hear a guy. Sound. Concept. Ideas. Everything. There are good people. It's my contention that there are good people and that jazz is sort of in the genes of this country, but the problem is that it's not really given enough exposure, enough promotion and so on, so that guys just don't go into it."