At 81, jazz legend Sonny Rollins has consistently earned lavish critical praise while winning countless accolades — including becoming the first jazz musician honored as an Edward MacDowell Medalist (2010), not to mention a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the National Medal of Arts. Still, Rollins is fairly dismissive of his prodigious talent, despite forging one of the greatest musical legacies in history as a bandleader, composer and player dating back to the late '40s.
"The way I look at it is I can always improve, and I've done a few good things," Rollins said in a recent phone interview hours before taking the stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival. "I was very fortunate early in my life to work with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world — people like Jackie McLean, Walter Bishop and Art Taylor. [Music] ... is a funny passion. You really have to have a gift for it to go past the cursory level. You can't ever be satisfied, and you know when you are playing well and when you aren't, no matter what anyone else says or writes. Most of the time it is a battle, because you're constantly trying to improve and get to a point most people don't understand or reach. I haven't gotten there yet, and I'm still trying to make it."
Though he may not be impressed with himself, his compatriots have been thrilled and astonished since he made his debut as a leader in 1951, following formative sessions with Babs Gonzalez, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson. Rollins' signature is a robust, striking sound, characterized by an incredible, powerful tenor (and occasionally soprano) saxophone tone. He's crafted numerous unforgettable solos on several classic LPs, right up to his latest, Road Shows, Vol. 2. His ability to deconstruct and revamp standards ranging from "I'm an Old Cowhand" to "There's No Business Like Show Business" remains uncanny. After a magnificent statement of the basic melody, Rollins takes the tune into unanticipated directions, sometimes inserting fragments from other numbers at rapid-fire speed or reshaping the song. Then, just as it seems he's lost all ties with the original, he'll smoothly weave back into it and conclude with a dazzling flourish.
Other Rollins trademarks include the pianoless trio and combo, being the rare jazz figure comfortable writing and playing calypsos, and the unaccompanied solo saxophone concert. But he's now largely abandoned the latter, conceding that while he loves the form, time has taken its toll. "Playing unaccompanied is something that's always been in my DNA," Rollins continued. "You can really get inside of yourself as a player, and you can get inside a song and get a feel and greater understanding for what it's saying. But the physical demands are such I don't do those kind of shows anymore."
The list of greats Rollins has played with surpasses his extensive discography. "Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson and Max Roach," he recalls. "Those are three that immediately stand out, because they took me when I was still learning and helped me develop. I got spoiled as a player working with them, because you got such training, so many ideas and so much support. Thelonious Monk could play anything at any time, and we had an amazing chemistry, even though he wrote very demanding music that he wanted played the way he heard it in his head. I remember working with John Coltrane on 'Tenor Madness.' When we were finished, John told everyone, 'Sonny was just playing with me.' He went on to make a lot of important and outstanding albums as a leader. But what I got out of all those collaborations was that you've got to keep growing as a player. None of these people thought they had done everything possible. They always wanted to find something new to do and say."
Road Shows, Vol. 2 was culled from performances for Rollins' 80th birthday celebration concert last year at the Beacon Theatre in New York. It's a superb mix of partnerships with veteran (guitarist Jim Hall, drummer Roy Haynes) and younger players (trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Christian McBride). The release also spotlights his working band with guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Kobie Watkins, percussionist Sammy Figueroa and bassist Bob Cranshaw, who's been a Rollins compadre since the early '60s. Perhaps the most memorable selection pairs Rollins with Ornette Coleman, another innovative figure in his 80s. Their 22-minute excursion on Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two" features sprawling, energetic exchanges, rich, imaginative solos and humorous horn asides, delivered atop equally fervent backing from a McBride/Haynes rhythm section. "Ornette and I used to play on the beach in California," Rollins said. "But I wasn't sure until the last minute if he was going to make the concert. I really had no idea going in of what he was going to play, so I just reacted to it as I heard it. It was a great experience."
Retirement is not a word Rollins uses, and he acknowledges his remarkable life definitely would make the subject of a great autobiography. But the process is not something he plans to begin right away, if ever. "Well, I've got a great title for it," Rollins admits. "The Autobiography of a Jazz Prodigy. But I'm still trying to find my way musically. That's why I keep playing, and that's what I'm living for, so I don't really have time right now to sit down and write any books."
Nice piece, Jim.
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