The print version of Jazziz is a quarterly now, but they're putting out online editions in between. The newest one is here, and the cover story is mine. The interface is a little weird, on my laptop at least; I can zoom in on a page but not scroll up and down to read the story. Just in case others are having the same problem, here's the text of the piece.
INTERVIEW WITH SONNY ROLLINS
Sonny Rollins is the definition of a living legend. A professional musician practically since the bebop era, he made his recorded debut in 1948, backing vocalist Babs Gonzalez. Over the last six decades, he’s seen every major movement in jazz come and go, from the hard bop ’50s when he recorded such landmark albums as Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness, Freedom Suite, Way Out West and the two volumes of Live At The Village Vanguard, to the avant-garde of the ’60s, which he explored on Our Man In Jazz and East Broadway Run Down, and the fusion which marked some of his ’70s releases for the Milestone label, and the post-bop classicism/modernism that has marked his output since the ’80s.
Rollins has frequently served as a bridge between musical schools of thought and between generations, as when he recorded with Don Cherry and Henry Grimes in 1962 and 1963, the same year that he made an album with Coleman Hawkins. In more recent years, his band has included veterans like bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Al Foster, alongside younger men like pianist Stephen Scott and guitarist Bobby Broom. In many ways, from his saxophone style – which encompasses melodicism, a deep sense of swing and the blues, and an openness to the avant-garde – to his skill at combining players and picking repertoire, Sonny Rollins is a prism through which all of modern jazz can be seen and heard.
This interview was conducted on September 1, 2009, just over a week before Rollins’ 79th birthday and shortly before he was due to begin his latest string of live dates.
Are you surprised to be one of the last men standing from your generation of jazz players?
Well, I’m not entirely surprised. Human beings never know the deepest secrets of the universe. We don’t know about life or death, when it comes, when it doesn’t come, but during my lifetime, there was a period when I stopped doing detrimental habits to my body. I got on health foods, I began exercising, I stopped smoking, stopped using drugs, lifted weights and so on and so forth. So I consciously made an effort during my life to respect my body, so am I surprised I’m the last one? Maybe, but in another sense I made a conscious effort to respect my body.
Do you miss playing with some of those guys, or is there a different kind of satisfaction in leading a band of younger musicians?
Well, of course, I was so fortunate to play with a lot of the real giants of music, and was really blessed beyond belief, and I still think about these people. I was very close to them, so I just have to think about them and it’s as if we’re together playing again. So there’s a certain metaphysical connection that I maintain with a lot of these people, like channeling them in a sense. But on the other hand, I still have a lot of music that I haven’t completed in my own path, so I’m still practicing every day, studying, writing, and playing with younger musicians. And they’re not as great as people I’ve played with, no, but I don’t really think of it as a comparison.
When I saw you play a few years ago, you had Bob Cranshaw and Al Foster, who were older guys, but you also had Stephen Scott on piano, who was a younger guy. So it was kind of a mix of generations.
Yeah. I like to have – younger people are good, because they have a lot of energy usually, and they don’t have as many…if you have an older musician who’s been around a while, he’s going to want more comforts on the road and so on. Which he deserves. But younger musicians are more amenable to coming out and playing and traveling without getting tired and all this kind of stuff. So as long as the musician is capable, he’s got to have some qualification to play with me, it’s fine. I’m glad to play with young guys. I’m happy, because as I said, they’ve got a lot of energy where some of the older guys have earned the right not to be always be that gung ho. Though that doesn’t apply to me, because I’m always gung ho. Some musicians feel they’ve reached a certain point and they’re still into their music, but they’re not eager beavers. Now, I’m a guy who’s an eager beaver even though I’m a veteran musician. But some of my colleagues near my age aren’t, necessarily. They know their work, they come and do it and they’re very skilled, and that’s it. I’m not like that. I’m a guy that knows that I have certain things I’m trying to accomplish and I’m steadily changing trying to improve myself trying to get to this lost chord, so to speak, which I’m searching for.
When you’ve been playing as long as you have, there can be a temptation to fall back on favorite phrases, which you don’t seem to do. How do you avoid that?
Well, one way I avoid it is that I’m not that skilled a musician to be able to – you know, it takes a certain skill to be able to play the same way every night. That takes skill. And I don’t have that skill, I can’t play the same thing every night. So it’s just my lot in life that I’m going to change, and what I play isn’t going to be the same. I’ve experienced times in my life where, I remember one time I got off the bandstand many years ago, and I heard this woman telling her boyfriend, “I didn’t like that. All I liked about him was when he played Way Out West,” this album that I’d made. So people want you to sort of repeat what you’ve done. And there’s a temptation – a legitimate one – to do something that people will like. You’ve endeared yourself to them by this music. But I have to suffer the blows of my erstwhile fans because I can’t play the same thing all the time, and at that time I was consciously trying to go in a different direction, and actually today some many years later I’m still doing that. I’m hearing new music that I’m trying to grasp. And it’s not what I played before, you know?
You experimented with avant-garde forms a little bit at the beginning of the 1960s, but never went as far into it as John Coltrane did. What made you decide that wasn’t the path for you?
[Laughs] Well, actually you hit on the exact period that I was giving you an example from. That was when I was playing with that group, with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. That was the same period. This is another curse, maybe, but I’m a person that, I’m a very eclectic musician and I hear different things, I like lots of different kinds of music, and I’m not always on one path straight ahead, I’m just amassing a lot of information. Throughout my career that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m fortunate I’m still here to have amassed the information that I have, and it’s coalescing now into something where I see the light at the end of the tunnel. But even back then I might have been examining styles or different movements of the music, but I wasn’t sure that I wanna stay right here, you know what I mean? So that’s why I didn’t sort of follow one path at that point.
Yeah, because there was Our Man In Jazz, which I love, and East Broadway Run Down was another one that was pretty out there, but then you moved back into more traditional forms and shorter songs.
More traditional, exactly. And I did something around that time that was a little – I was also examining that movement in jazz. I didn’t leave it in dismay or disgust or anything, I really absorbed much of what was happening at that time that I could absorb and that appealed to me, and it’s part of what I do now. I might play some conventional songs, and of course the solos are always different all the time and they include a lot of this information from the ’60s that you’re talking about. I’m getting something together – my whole point, what I want to do, my whole plan, hopefully my destiny, is to absorb all these things that I’ve done all these years in music and be able to put them into a coherent style or form and play. That’s what I’m aiming for. It will include everything I am. Because I’m not just avant-garde, I’m not just straight ahead, I’m not just sentimental, I’m all of these things. And I’m trying to get them together, because they’re part of me. That’s what I want to portray in a coherent style.
It’s interesting to me that you were listening to guys like Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders at the time, because the impression I get is that a lot of older players really rejected that movement at the time, and seem to have seen free jazz as a threat to what they were doing.
Well, I guess that shows what type of musician I am or where my scope is. I know that when Ornette Coleman first came to New York and created the sensation that he did, a lot of the critics were surprised to learn – a lot of them learned very recently – that I used to practice with Ornette in California, before he came to New York. They were very surprised to know that. It didn’t fit their conventional wisdom of who they thought Sonny Rollins was supposed to be. And quite recently, with the passing of the drummer Rashied Ali, who used to play with Coltrane? Rashied and I played together. He was in my band for a while. A lot of people didn’t know that. A lot of guys who think they know Sonny Rollins, his career and style and output and stuff like that, they were surprised that Rashied Ali and I played together. So this is sort of the ignorance of conventional wisdom.
You seem to be a very melodic improviser. Can you tell me how you go about constructing a solo, and is there a point where you kind of get out of yourself while playing?
Well, you’ve touched on two things there. The melodic player – I guess I grew up listening to melody. I love melody. My first impressions musically were Fats Waller, he used to sing a lot as well as doing other fantastic things, and I grew up in the age of the movies. So we used to go to the movies every week and we’d see these Hollywood productions with these musical scores. I remember very early on seeing Swing Time with Astaire and Rogers, and the music by one of my all time favorites, Jerome Kern. I remember those melodies very well – they stick with me, and I just love melody. I had an older brother who played classical violin and an older sister who played the piano and stuff like that, but I got a lot from the movies. I always liked melody. So that’s where that comes from. As far as my out of body, that gets into something else that might be beyond the scope of this conversation. A woman is writing a book about people that studied yoga, and I’m one of the subjects. And for my part of the book, I had to sort of recount my life when I studied yoga, and I remember that I used to be able to float. I would be meditating and my spirit or my soul, my mind, whatever you want to call it, would float up to the ceiling and sort of float around. I mean it was an exhilarating experience. So there’s a lot of ways to leave your body. But when I’m playing, I leave my body in the sense that when I’m really in the middle of a solo, I try to forget all the things I’ve learned about the music, I try to forget where I’m at, the audience, everything. Be oblivious to everything. So I leave my body in that sense, and the music is playing me. I’m not standing up there thinking, ‘Lemme play this next, and I’ll play this after that.’ I’m not doing that at all. I’m just there, and the music is playing through me, so to speak.
You seem to have a tremendous library of standards committed to memory. How many songs do you rehearse with the band before starting a tour, and how much does the set change from night to night?
Since I have such a tremendous, humungous repertoire of material I’ve done over the years, I really can’t have that all available to me with any band during any set of performances. So what we do, I have a set list of maybe – and this depends on the fact that I have some guys in the band that have been there a while. I have Cranshaw, so I can go back. So I have maybe twelve songs that the band is doing currently, and I try to work on those. They come whatever I think of at the time, I have no standardized setlist. It’s whatever I think of at the moment. I like to have more than that, because sometimes I might think of a song we haven’t played in a long time, but I have to restrict myself to that because it’s just impractical to have a group of six musicians who know my whole career of 50 years plus. So I’m restricted to maybe 12 or 15 songs that I can call whenever I get ready to go onstage, and have them know it. Musicians don’t necessarily like being surprised by a tune, so I try to be aware of that.
Do you have a vision for what Road Shows, Vol. 2 will be? Will you release complete shows in the future, or continue to pick individual songs from multiple performances?
I’m not certain. I tried to pick Volume 1 from performances without delving too deeply into the archives because I don’t like listening to myself, so I didn’t want to go too deeply. I just picked something that was fairly accessible, I didn’t have to listen to a whole bunch of stuff. In the future, if there is a complete performance, a whole concert, that might be the way we might go. I’m not sure how it’s going to go. I’m not sure what Volume 2 will entail, actually.
And are you planning to go back into the studio soon?
Yes, I want to go into the studio as soon as my schedule is over this December. I’d like to go into the studio and start on a new project.