Sonny Rollins is his own man, plain and simple. His heart thumps to a singular beat - a tempo we all tune into occasionally with reverence and wonder. For nearly 60 years now, the tenor saxophonist has brandished a long and heavy horn - contributing to several movements in jazz; setting new standards for improvisation; relentlessly moving, evolving, eluding typecasts; never indulging in pressures to conform, streamline or sanitize his music; and always adhering to his own philosophies of life and expression. One thing is for certain: Rollins is a jazz legend like no other. Perhaps he's not the greatest ever - though many would argue otherwise - but he's close, and undoubtedly among the most talented, prolific and intriguingly paradoxical figures jazz has produced.
Over the course of his long and winding career - which saw him emerge from the shadows of bebop in the early '50s, take leave of the scene not once but twice, put forth no less than a dozen seminal recordings, and establish himself as a chartered member of the idiom's immortal class - Rollins has remained committed to one thing above all else: the quest for unfettered artistic expression. To practice, to develop, and eventually, to perfect.
Despite this ongoing search, Rollins has long since found his musical voice. His sound is full-bodied and virile, at once giving hints of those before him - Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker - while also carrying its own unique range of tones and inflections. At any given moment, Rollins' horn is capable of everything from gentle whispers, rambling rhymes and fierce swing to staccato yelps, guttural belches and caustic flares. And as with all great artists, the elements of his expressions glowingly reflect the compelling life he's lived.
Born in the latter part of 1929, Theodore Walter Rollins grew up amid the abounding energy of the Harlem Renaissance. After shirking childhood piano lessons, a move to the bustling Harlem district of Sugar Hill gave the young upstart just the inspiration he needed. "All the great people in the black community lived uptown, on the hill," recalled Rollins in a recent phone interview. "Duke Ellington, Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, John Kirby, just about everybody you could name, you'd see walking around the neighborhood. It was great."
Following an adolescent flirtation with the alto sax, Rollins moved to tenor around 1946. All-night jam sessions and sit-ins quickly led to respect among fellow musicians, which in turn gave way to gigs and recording dates. "There was a lot of solidarity, especially if they liked you. For people like Monk, and all the guys that could play - if you had shown any talent, then you were admitted."
And admitted he was. By the mid '50s, Rollins had seen action alongside many modern jazz luminaries, including Monk, Miles Davis, JJ Johnson, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. On top of this, Rollins had cut a handful of his own records, of which Worktime
(1955), Saxophone Colossus
(1956), Tenor Madness
(1956) and Way Out West
(1957) were received as instant classics. His singular blend of bop dexterity and traditional lyricism catapulted Rollins to the top of jazz' new breed of stars and further bridged the gap between modern and antiquated forms.
Yet as heralded as the young Rollins may have been, he was also intensely self-critical. Club dates and record contracts paid the bills, but only hard work and continued development would ensure a dynamic future. "Even though I was doing fairly well in the '50s, I had some self-doubt. I wanted to improve myself... so I said, 'Okay, I'm going to really get off the scene, and get my stuff together'."
By the close of 1959, Rollins had done just that - fled the scene. Though some of his peers understood his motives, critics and fans alike were baffled by the Titan's sudden disappearance. Rollins used the hiatus to take stock of himself and his art and to ground skyrocketing expectations. "I did a little studying of composition, and then found this beautiful place to practice, up on the Williamsburg Bridge. What was really good about it was that, for me to walk away from something at that point, reinforced my belief in myself. That I have to listen to myself, and do what I think is right, and not listen to a lot of people telling me how great I am."
Rollins returned to the fray in 1961 - refreshed, retooled, and brimming with new ideas. The following year he released The Bridge
(1962), a brilliantly irreverent quartet album pairing Rollins with guitar legend Jim Hall. Another round of acclaimed recordings then paved the way for a second hiatus - this one more extended, spanning from 1966 to 1972. Once again, the Titan reemerged in fighting form, with his cunningly self-referential Next Album
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.