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Sonny Rollins: Still Seeking the Lost Chord

R.J. DeLuke By

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Jazz is life. It's what happens every minute of every day. It's fresh and new. Creative, just like life itself.
The Saxophone Colossus. The greatest living improvising musician. A musical god. Sonny Rollins has been called all these things at one time or another by fans across the globe, as well as by those involved in the pursuit of music criticism and jazz history. There's no question he is the greatest remaining icon to come out of the golden age of jazz, the be-bop period begun in the 1940s that created "mainstream" jazz as it is known today, even though it was new and rebellious at the time. In that time, and for many ensuing years, legends—Miles, Monk, Mingus, Trane, Diz, Duke, Max, Brownie, Fats, Oscar, Dexter, Bird, Bud, names too numerous to mention—walked the Earth. Most of them are gone.

Rollins remains and believe it, he is no relic. At age 78, he is touring, performing, playing with enough might and majesty that he is still winning awards from magazines and groups like the Jazz Journalists Association. Like almost no other of that epic period of jazz, Rollins is still creating influential sounds, breathing life through his tenor saxophone, speaking with power, telling stories of consequence and substance through that assembly of metal and spring-loaded keys.

"I'm now a legend, whether I want to be or not," he says good naturedly. He is aware of what is written and said about him, but is humbled by the bigger picture of life itself. He is relatively soft spoken, but open, honest and gracious. Affable and kind.

He's not a saxophonist emeritus. He says he's still searching, trying to find new music inside him and bring it out to the world.

Chapter Index
  1. Life Music
  2. New Product
  3. Dealing with Difficulties
  4. Doxy Records
  5. Friends and the Golden Age
  6. On Hiatus
  7. Improvising
  8. Jazz and the Future

Life Music

Seeing Rollins perform these days is still extraordinary. He walks more gingerly onto the stage, but once he counts off the music and puts horn to his lips, the years strip away. His sound, which has influenced countless sax players and other musicians for decades, is ageless. He maintains a regal presence. People stop what they're doing and listen. In a loose, flowing shirt, with hair and beard now silver in hue, he has a distinctive aura. It befits his status and stature in the music world, for in jazz music, he stands very near the source.

Rollins doesn't raise his horn above his head these days, blaring to the heavens as he did as a younger man. He can't pull off what he did more than two decades ago at the Opus 40 Festival, near Saugerties, NY, when he jumped down off a stage about four feet high, broke his heel, and—unfazed—continued to play while lying on his back, his band mates in as much awe as the audience (captured in the Robert Mugge-produced film, "Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus," Winstar, 1986). But he brings the power. Like at Newport in August of 2008 when he blew "Global Warming" mightily into the harbor that eventually leads to the mighty Atlantic. Like at the Litchfield Jazz festival in 2001, when his sound from beneath the festival tent cut through a summer storm; where it felt almost as though his gleaming sound both brought and then controlled the thunder and lightning during the deluge. Like Zeus, tossing lightning bolts, but by design, not whim.

Rollins is a picture of concentration as he performs, rocking gently, transferring weight from one leg to the other, sometimes walking in place. Sometimes slowly traversing the stage. Always in time; a swaying motion to his gait. Summoning his muse. It's also apparent he's having fun. He's home.

Mark Soskin played piano with Rollins for some 14 years. He not only accompanied the master on stage, but heard countless moments of solo Sonny as he practiced in the dressing room before gigs, he recounts in a 2007 All About Jazz interview. That strengthened his own playing.

"There is a certain feeling of looseness and freedom in Sonny Rollins' playing that is unique," says Soskin in December. "Of course the technique is there, but it's not about that. It's way beyond that. I loved how when we performed, anything could happen and it often did. Sometimes there were endless trades with the drums, stopping tunes to go into other ones, abrupt key changes and more. The band was always on their toes and if you weren't , you were gone. The Sonny Rollins experience is a perfect example of jazz at it's most spontaneous."

Rollins still likes to play standards. And usually has at least one calypso-influenced number in his repertoire. His explorations include streaks of multi-note bursts in and around the chords. Then he may halt for a moment, not for breath, but for the next burst of inspiration, an idea pursued, branches cleared away and a path found that might go around a boulder and under a tree branch. A path that few would see, much less decided to follow. Sometimes phrases are repeated, becoming part of the composition's rhythmic appeal. His sound takes over.

Bah-bah bahhh, bah-bah bahhh ...

But all the while a phrase is repeated, Rollins is thinking. Or rather trying to erase in his mind what is rote and find spontaneity. On a good night, he's devoid of preconceived distraction. Then he's off on an excursion; running down chords with a burnished flurry of notes; up and down the horn. The deep tones can raise hair on ones arms. Other jaunts are serpentine. Then he's back to blasting out a repeated theme in a distinct form. Commanding form.

Sonny Rollins form.

The tension and release in his playing puts listeners on edge, waiting for the next explosion, the next exhilarating sounds from the curved bronze beast that Rollins has trained so adroitly to do his bidding. Even though, like all great artists, there are times Rollins feels the beast has gotten the better; that he didn't quite get it right on a particular night; goals not quite met. It's that quest for unique art that makes it so worth sitting at the feet of the great ones, hoping to catch a special moment and enjoy the journey; touch the hem of the garment, as it were.

Says Soskin, "Sonny also has a unique relationship with the audience. He always knew how to lure them into his deeper thoughts and stream of consciousness playing. The calypsos were as much apart of the show as the rest and here is where you could hear his sheer joy of the music. It doesn't matter if it's one honking low note or a torrid, fast flurry of them. He always got his point across and very clearly. Also, the knowledge of standard repertoire is phenomenal."

The sound of Sonny Rollins is one of vitality, consistently over the decades. As a youngster on Miles Davis Dig (Prestige, 1951) more than half a century ago, he's confident and strong, following examples set by Charlie Parker. His own early recordings with fine musicians of that era are equally impressive, as are albums with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, or his expansion into the pianoless trios at the Village Vanguard, or his own bands in the 1980s and 1990s. It's an aural documentation of a distinctive style that continued to mature, and was followed by so many. There's joy. Humor (expect quotes from other tunes that fit into a song's natural cadence as Sonny has re-drawn it). Sonny still stands at the pinnacle of saxophone players and improvisers. Playing jazz.

"The art of improvisation and reaching people with spontaneous music—which is what jazz is all about—it's always going to be here, because that's really life," says Rollins from his upstate New York home in November, not long before embarking on a tour of five German cities, plus Zurich, Switzerland. "Somebody said to me, 'Gee. Some guys don't like to call it jazz.' So I said: then call it life music, instead of jazz. Because that's what it is. It's life. It's alive. It's like nature. It's sunny, it's raining, it's snowing. It's whatever. It's spring time. Jazz is life. It's what happens every minute of every day. It's fresh and new. Creative, just like life itself."

Joe Lovano, one of the finest tenor saxophonists of his generation, also refers to "life" and music when he speaks of one of his influences and idols in a video on Rollins superb website. Lovano says Rollins "gives you the highest standard to reach for in your music and your life...his execution, his ideas, his free-flowing streams of consciousness and life has just given me so much to reach for as a player, as a composer."



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