Jazz great Sonny Rollins says improvisation is in his blood

by Mark Stryker

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

9 October 2007

12 CLASSIC SONNY ROLLINS SOLOS “St. Thomas” (1956). Rollins’ landmark calypso inaugurated his lifelong fascination with Caribbean rhythms while the marriage of suspense and structure in his improvisation—check out the way he manipulates the opening two-note motif—captures his maturity in full flower. From “Saxophone Colossus” (Prestige). “It Could Happen to You” (1957). Rollins’ first recorded a cappella performance foreshadows the go-it-alone set pieces that would evolve into a hallmark of his style. From “The Sound of Sunny” (Riverside). “Blues for Philly Joe” (1957). An ebulliently swinging blues improvisation whose choruses comprise a textbook of thematic variation. Not as elaborate as the iconic “Blue Seven,” but a lot more fun. From “Newk’s Time” (Blue Note). “Old Devil Moon” (1957). With an elastic bass-and-drums trio anchored by Elvin Jones, Rollins carves up this standard with rapier wit, loosey-goosey phrasing, swing and a dazzling flow of spontaneous melodic and rhythmic rhyme that mark him as the greatest chord-change player in jazz. From “A Night at the Village Vanguard” (Blue Note). “God Bless the Child” (1962). Rollins’ sound glows like a Rembrandt interior on one of his most tender ballad performances, underscored by eloquent dialogue with guitarist Jim Hall. From “The Bridge” (RCA). “If Ever I Would Leave You” (1962). Rollins stretches out beautifully on this urgent bossa nova, animating his organic narrative with ecstatic rhythmic phrasing, a bellowing tone and cocksure articulation. A prime example of his `60s style. From “What’s New” (RCA). “Oleo” (1962). With two former members of Ornette Coleman’s band in tow, Rollins unleashes a 25-minute tour de force of stream-of-consciousness abstraction: his sui generis approach to free jazz. From “Our Man in Jazz” (RCA). “Three Little Words” (1965). At a whirlwind tempo, Rollins slices the melody into shards before reassembling them into elaborately virtuoso variations, including a final coda as stunning as anything he’s recorded. From “Sonny Rollins on Impulse” (Impulse). “Alfie’s Theme” (1966). Burt Bacharach wrote the breakout tune “Alfie,” but Rollins wrote the film score, including this swaggering theme. His long solo, austere and full of sardonic tonal inflection, is a masterpiece of thematic improvising. From “Alfie” (Impulse). “Autumn Nocturne” (1978). The ferocious four-minute leadoff cadenza remains an Olympian achievement and a rare bright spot among Rollins’ mostly desultory records in the `70s and early `80s. From “Don’t Stop the Carnival” (Milestone) and “Silver City” (Milestone). “G-Man” (1986). An up-tempo modal explosion in which Rollins, paced by drummer Marvin (Smitty) Smith, breaks out of his recording slump. He piles layers of intricate linear ideas, barking riffs and willful cries during an indefatigable 15-minute display of energy, stamina and invention. From “G-Man” (Milestone) and “Silver City.” “I’ve Never Been In Love Before” (1995). Shadowed gloriously by Tommy Flanagan on piano, Rollins blows up a storm in two separate solos, his gruff elocution dense and audacious enough to earn audible shouts of encouragement from his bandmates. From “Sonny Rollins + 3” (Milestone).

If you asked jazz musicians, critics and aficionados to name the greatest living jazz improviser, the overwhelming favorite would surely be tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins.

Rollins remains the most self-effacing musician on the planet, so he would be the first to dismiss such claims. But facts are facts. When he’s inspired, the music erupts from his imagination in a spontaneous rush of Joycean intuition, wonder, wit, thematic coherence and rhythmic surprise. At 77, he can still stop the world.

It doesn’t happen by accident. As he said in an interview from his home in Germantown, N.Y., he still practices every day in search of new modes of expression.

Rollins had a fast start, working and recording with giants—Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Max Roach. By the late `50s he had become an innovator and sweeping influence. His finest records—“Saxophone Colossus,” “A Night at the Village Vanguard,” “Our Man in Jazz” and others—remain state of the art.

He’s riding a wave of publicity surrounding a 50th anniversary concert three weeks ago at Carnegie Hall that featured his regular band and a one-time-only trio of bassist Christian McBride and 82-year-old drummer Roy Haynes.

Q: Tell me about playing with Christian and Roy.

A: Well, it’s back to my old trio format. I’ve never played in that situation with Christian and Roy, but they had played together before. They’re great musicians, so it was very enjoyable. The only thing is we didn’t have enough time. Maybe we’ll get together again.

Q: Do you have plans?

A: Not specifically, but my agenda is wide open. If the idea really takes hold, I guess I would do that. People had thought that we might go touring, but I’m not sure right now. I’m booked until the end of the year, and then I have some months off. Maybe next year we’ll think about some options.

Q: Roy Haynes is 82 and still playing with extraordinary authority. Dave Brubeck, Hank Jones, James Moody and Clark Terry are all in their 80s. You and Ornette Coleman are 77. Jazz used to be considered a young man’s game, but your generation has a lot to give.

A: It’s like classical music. As long as you have the physical capacity to do it, age is an asset to a jazz musician. There is so much to learn. I practice every day and I’m still learning stuff every time I play. ...

Although I know musicians like Count Basie or Milt Jackson—guys who kept playing at a certain level as they got older but weren’t musicians who necessarily changed, which can be great. But I’m a musician of a different stripe. I can’t do that. I’m not that good a musician to play on the same level and do the same thing all the time.

Guys like me have to keep changing around. That’s how we survived. A lot of guys get to the point where they’re established and that’s it. My kind is a little different, because I’m physically incapable of playing two nights in a row the same.

Q: Do you feel the need to make changes to keep yourself inspired or is there something else going on?

A: In my case I started out in this field as a neophyte among a bunch of established pros. I was the kid on the block, and I’ve always been learning all my career. I didn’t come into the field full-blown. In a sense I’m still a work in progress. Some people come on the scene having all of these skills intact.

Plus, the way I improvise is different. I don’t hear the same thing all the time. I go by improvisational instinct and that’s always changing, because that’s what improvisation is. It’s always different.

Q: What are your memories of Detroit?

A: Detroit was always a very vibrant jazz city. There were a lot of great musicians coming out of Detroit—a great tradition and a lot of clubs and places to play. I remember on Woodward Avenue, what was the name of that ballroom?

Q: The Graystone.

A: Right. I remember playing at the Graystone and Lester Young sat in. I was playing with Max (Roach) and Clifford (Brown). We had played opposite Lester in New York at the Cafe Bohemia, so I got to know him.

That was a great experience at the Graystone, because that was the only time I played with Lester. Of course, I had played with him in my head forever.

Q: You had some special musical relationships with Detroit musicians. One was pianist Tommy Flanagan.

A: Oh, boy. Tommy was such a great musician. He was such a flawless accompanist. But he’s more than an accompanist. He was just an exceptional player.

Q: The other Detroiter you had such a vital relationship with was drummer Elvin Jones. He played with an incredibly loose rhythmic concept and so do you. Did you feel a kinship with Elvin?

A: Yes, I did. It’s like being released from prison, you know?

Q: I always thought it was a shame that later on you didn’t play more with Elvin.

A: The last time I saw Elvin—that sounds like the title of a song—I was in Perugia, Italy, playing a concert. He was also on this jazz festival. I had started playing a song called “Serenade.” It’s sort of a ¾ thing and it would have been perfect for Elvin and myself to play together.

Elvin and his wife were there when we came off. Elvin said, “Hey man, we gotta play that together. We gotta make a record of that song.” I said, “Right!” We had planned to record but it never came about. Elvin was sick and we didn’t get it done in time, but it was certainly in the works to reunite. It was right before he passed away.

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