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Sonny Rollins: Mark of Greatness

By Published: February 7, 2012
"Music is of a certain place; jazz is of a certain place. Life is of a certain place now; the world is at a certain place now. Every day is something new. And music is in a certain place now. I think into that area of where the world is at. So that's what I haven't really gotten out, yet," says Rollins. "We've done it in our performances. This last tour in Europe was very successful. Commercially, it was very successful, but also it was musically successful, and we had some jobs leading up to that which were successful. So there's something I know we can accomplish musically, which I haven't been able to accomplish yet. I can't describe exactly what it is. But it's not some of the stuff which I played on Road Shows 2, on which I played a lot of standards. Sure, I might have played something different on them, but they were basically straightforward, except for the duo—or, as Bill Clinton called it [in his toast to Rollins at the Kennedy Center Honors dinner], 'a duel'—with Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
sax, alto
. Other than that, it was very straightforward. I want to move beyond that. I mean, not to a point where people don't understand it. Not that—to the point of 2012, that's all. When I do that, I'll feel satisfied—more satisfied. The people will also be edified. Because I know what it is. The people, in some cases where they've gotten it, they've reacted, of course. So that's where I want to be, and that's what I haven't gotten out on records yet."

Some health issues have to be addressed for the octogenarian, but getting into the studio is important. "I had a hard year, so I have to sort of get some things straightened out, make sure I'm going to be OK to hit the trail again. Hopefully, that should be OK. Then I want to do [the recording] before I go to work in the spring," Rollins explains. "I have four new songs that we have been playing in performance. It's good to play these in performance. It shows where it can go, also. We've been doing that. So I know they will work, and I know we can do them and be successful. Four or five new songs that have never been recorded—that's definitely waiting to be recorded.

"I hope to produce some really revelatory music. I want to do something that I can really be happy with. That's what I mean about Road Shows 2. I didn't get on it what I wanted to. ... Besides the Ornette duet ["Sonnymoon for Two"], which was really adventurous, everything else was stuff I have done—the material, anyway. We can sound different every night on anything. But the material was stuff I could have done before. You know what I mean? ... That's why I'm glad Ornette came and we played together. Because that was a little bit different. Everything else besides that was playing which I could have done 25 years ago, or 40 years ago, or 50 years ago. In terms of format and material ... I had other material to put on there, but after listening to it, it wasn't what I wanted it to be."

With such high standards, it's got to be difficult for Rollins to reach a level of satisfaction. It's pressure that comes from his own exacting standard of what art, made in the moment, can be. Opening that saxophone case and reaching for the horn—yet again—brings an element of the unknown. But the horn is also like an appendage.

"It's not so much: 'There it is again,' because it's such a part of me now—almost [like] going to the bathroom or something. You have to go again, but you don't think about it in that sense. It's such a natural part of your life, you don't think of it as something separate from your everyday existence," Rollins says. "There are some instances where I might not practice for two or three days, for whatever reason. I don't mean when I'm traveling. When I'm traveling, I have to be off. I can't practice two or three days. But when I'm at home and for some reason I can't practice for two or three days, I begin to feel physically out of sorts. Then when I practice—bang, I'm back to normal."

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