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Tenor Madness 

At 72, Sonny Rollins remains one of jazz's biggest enigmas -- and a hugely rewarding live performer

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
When it comes to Sonny Rollins, it doesn't take much prompting to solicit superlatives from jazz stars. Joshua Redman, the 33-year-old Berkeley Wunderkind and popular Warner Bros. recording artist, says, "I don't think there's a tenor player playing today who wasn't in some way influenced by him." Robert Stewart, another East Bay native with five albums to his credit, calls Rollins "a big influence," while 51-year-old David S. Ware, the premier avant-garde tenor of his generation, says it's "the melody, the sound, his ideas" that make Rollins so great. Certainly, the tenor saxophonist's six-decade career, enormous output, and inspirational reach are impressive. But, for the casual fan, Rollins presents a bit of a conundrum.

There is no question that Rollins deserves the accolades of peers and critics alike. His contributions to the jazz vocabulary are every bit as profound as Charlie Parker's bop speed or John Coltrane's abstract pyrotechnics. But it can be hard to get a sense of Rollins' impact from his recordings alone, prodigious though they are. Among over 50 albums as a leader and dozens more as a sideman, there are few that are considered true classics. None offers the mind-blowing experience of vintage Coltrane or the radical departures of Ornette Coleman. Nor does it help that Rollins -- heralded as the No. 1 tenorist of the 1950s after recording an astonishing two dozen albums in the latter half of that decade -- chose to drop out of sight in 1959, allowing the emergent Coltrane to assume that mantle. (Rollins would disappear for extended periods throughout his lengthy career.)

But sometimes the greatest music is that which can never really be captured on record. Rollins' true legacy lies in the realm of live performance, a setting in which his muscular tone, gargantuan energy, and innovative improvisational skills allow him to surpass his peers. This week, Rollins comes to town for a rare local performance, spurred on by SFJAZZ's "Celebrating Sonny Rollins" festivities. With Redman and Ware -- as well as tenor Joe Lovano, guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Brian Blade, and others -- paying tribute to the sax colossus with interpretations of his tunes, there's no better time to ponder his contributions to the jazz medium.

Theodore "Sonny" Rollins grew up in the Sugar Hill district of Harlem during the '30s and '40s. "All the great jazz artists lived up there," says Rollins via phone from his home in upstate New York. "Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington and Andy Kirk, anybody you could name that was tops, 98 percent of them lived on the Hill."

None of the musicians residing in the area had a bigger impact on Rollins than pianist Thelonious Monk. Although at the time Rollins was only a teen and Monk was 38, the two quickly struck up a musical kinship. In fact, Rollins became one of the few tenor saxophonists who could groove with Monk's gap-filled, idiosyncratic bop style. "Monk has said that I was his favorite saxophone player, and it's a great compliment," says Rollins, "but I think whatever it is that I have, whatever talent I have, I think Monk just recognized that and liked me for what I was."

It took the young tenor just a few short years to make the leap from fledgling student to a master on par with his friend. Rollins managed to translate Monk's melody-based improvising into his own explosive style, an innovation with huge implications. By building on the theme of the song and never losing touch with the melody rather than merely running through chord progressions like other bop soloists, Rollins freed players from what had become a cliché-ridden vocabulary. The breakthrough was all the more amazing because, while some critics recognized what Rollins was doing, he says he wasn't even aware of it at the time.

Upon the 1956 release of Saxophone Colossus, the first album to display this improv style, Rollins sparked a whole new way of configuring a song. "It's not just his tenor playing or his style, it's his whole approach to thematic improvisation," says Joshua Redman. "The way in which he could take a motif and develop it over the course of a solo and really tell a story. He wasn't the first great storyteller in jazz, but he certainly was one of the greats, perhaps the greatest of the bop generation."

After conquering a heroin addiction in 1955, Rollins produced several of his finest albums, including Way Out West, a bizarre offering that featured country standards such as "I'm an Old Cowhand"; The Freedom Suite, his statement on racial injustice; and A Night at the Village Vanguard, which set the standard for the Impulse! label's popular series of live recordings. Again, while none of these albums provided the shock of Coltrane's A Love Supreme or even the high-concept sheen of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, they rewarded listeners with the deceptively simple delights of Rollins' improvisatory breakthroughs.

Bizarrely enough, in 1959 Rollins chose to walk away from the scene when he was at the height of his powers, sparking the most famous sabbatical in the history of jazz. In Open Sky, a biography published in 2000, Rollins says, "I felt that my name was bigger than my talent at that time. So the feeling of that -- of being on a high pedestal and not feeling you could do it and disappointing the people -- that was enough to make me realize, "Well, I'm going to go away and get myself straight.'"

Rollins spent the next two years working on his sound, and the way he did it -- more specifically, where he did it -- is almost as famous as the break itself. Having honed his craft against the roar of the Atlantic Ocean earlier in his career, he now found an even quirkier spot: under the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. His tenure there became so legendary that other musicians, such as soprano sax master Steve Lacy, used to visit him under the bridge for impromptu jam sessions.

Rollins' first album after this break, aptly titled The Bridge, was one of the most highly anticipated discs of the early '60s and showed him playing with extreme confidence and newfound rhythmic dexterity. Soon after, Rollins embraced the free-jazz sound, employing two ex-members of Ornette Coleman's band, drummer Billy Higgins and trumpet player Don Cherry. While many of this period's releases were excellent, Rollins eventually tired of the avant-garde. By 1965, when Coltrane was creating his groundbreaking opus Ascension, Rollins was laying down the pop-minded score to the film Alfie. Rollins never seemed entirely comfortable in the free-jazz scene, and, after taking another break in the early '70s to study meditation techniques, he returned to playing in the hard bop style he'd perfected. Throughout the next three decades he recorded sporadically, most famously guesting on the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on Friend" in 1981.

If his legacy consisted solely of his discography, Rollins would still garner a prominent place in the pantheon of jazz history. But he has always been best known for his live performances, and it is here that his true importance lies. "I don't really expect a lot from the audience," Rollins says. "I think it's up to me to reach them. Now there's always a great sense, a sort of a good will or good vibrations that come from the audience, and I can feel that. Sometimes they put out something, and it's palpable, so when I get that [feeling], it inspires me to play a little more. It brings out things in me, I guess."

At a show at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco just five years ago, Rollins displayed the type of magic of which he's capable. As his band began laying down a groove onstage -- bongos hiccuping an odd calypso beat, bass twanging alongside, trap drums keeping time -- Rollins unleashed a deep, guttural wail from his position backstage. Eventually he drifted out to join the other musicians, holding his horn delicately in front of him and shifting from one foot to the other, as if stepping on hot sand. Rollins then took off on a solo that never deviated from the melody, even while he inverted and stretched it to an incredible degree. His blowing deepened to a humorous speechlike pattern, bringing in brief references to other tunes, musical anecdotes, and asides. The solo seemed to go on for the length of the concert, as the bassist cast desperate glances at the weary drummer while Rollins blew on and on.

Tenorist Ware testifies to the power of such a performance, even today. "I've heard him play several times over the years," says Ware. "Let me put it this way: I heard a concert in 1999 behind the Lincoln Center, and ... I don't think I've ever heard him play better, and I've heard him play scores of times, dating back to the '60s. That particular concert, if he never played another note, for me that was something that totally went beyond words."

About The Author

David Cook


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