[The other week, I interviewed Sonny Rollins for MSN Music. The abridged version ran here; this is the full transcript of our conversation. Some questions are now moot 'cause the 80th birthday concert has already happened; see my last post for details. But anyway, here 'tis.]
You were considering going into the studio back in December, right? Did that happen?
I do intend to go back in the studio next year. So if I had claimed that earlier, I didn’t get in the studio this year, but I do plan to get in there next year, depending on my schedule.
Some jazz musicians are well known for their compositions, but you’re more recognized for your abilities as a soloist. Do you ever wish you’d devoted yourself more to composition?
Well, writing tunes, composer, those can be qualified, I guess. I spend some time when I’m composing. If I have to compose, I have to spend time at it and I usually do this if I’m composing for a project of some kind. I’m an extemporaneous improviser, that’s what I do, so I compose things as vehicles to get to that part of my output, you know, they’re vehicles for me to get to my extemporizing. But some people – I haven’t done any Stravinsky-like works. I was involved in a tenor saxophone concerto but that’s about it. What do you want me to say? That I’m a great composer, that I’m not a great composer?
Well, I'm just curious, what’s your process?
Well, my process is generally if I’m walking through the airport and I have an idea I always have a piece of paper and I jot it down. If I’m at home going to sleep, I always jot it down. If I’m in the car and I get some idea that I think would work out to be a composition I pull the car over and write it down. Then I also go to the piano sometimes and work out things. But that’s something that unless I’m composing for a project I don’t really do. And then a lot of things come to me while I’m practicing, while I’m playing by myself, some idea might strike me that I think might work as a tune.
A lot of what are known as jazz standards were originally songs from Broadway shows or from movie musicals. Where are new standards coming from?
Well, a standard I think really implies Broadway shows or movies or something like that. So if you mean songs that everybody will start playing, well, I always have the hopes that some of the things that I’m composing might turn out to be played by a lot of other people, but the thing is that these days with the business of music being what it is, most people will compose a line for themselves and therefore they’ll be able to get the copyright, the publishing money, et cetera, et cetera. So that whereas years ago, musicians were apt to record standards and well known songs they did it probably because of the fact that the business of music set it so we didn’t own our own material. A lot of jazz musicians now will write something that they own. They probably won’t become standards, but they fit the needs of the particular player.
You never moved fully into fusion the way groups like Weather Report or Return to Forever did in the 1970s. Did that sound not interest you?
Return to Forever? Well, that’s not my métier, you know. Those were all great groups, great musicians and everything like that, but I’m Sonny Rollins. I’m not the sort to follow the bus. I have my own idea, my own things that I feel are best expressed through my particular talent. So I keep current but in another sense I’m not a copier, if you know what I mean. But I certainly appreciate all of the things Return to Forever and all those guys were playing, the musicianship and everything, but it’s got to fit me also. I have something unique, or so they tell me, so that I have to kind of work on developing that and have the confidence to feel that that’s of equal stature or at least in the same ballpark with Return to Forever or whoever else is coming out tomorrow.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you’re a yoga practitioner, and are you also a vegetarian?
I eat fish. I’m not a complete vegetarian. I do eat fish and yogurt, and other than that, vegetables. So no, I’m not a complete vegetarian. I do eat fish, I’m careful which fish I eat and everything like that, and I do eat yogurt. But do I eat red meat? No. And I don’t eat chicken. That’s about as close as I’m gonna get to being a vegetarian.
And how does your diet or exercise impact the physical aspects of music-making?
You mean through my diet? Well, you know, not particularly. I think what I was doing at that time was trying to perfect myself as a human being. I was trying to sort of get myself able to survive and to thrive in this world we live in. It wasn’t so much about the effect it would have on my playing, and I don’t really know what effect it did have except that it made me a more confident human being. So I’m sure that impacted my music. But I can’t draw a line and say, I stopped eating meat and that’s when I started playing better. I couldn’t say that. But by stopping eating meat and other detrimental habits I was engaged in, by discarding all of those habits I became a more aware, conscious person, and I’m sure that had an effect on me and of course on my music.
You’ve got some special guests coming to your 80th birthday concert – have you rehearsed with them, or does everyone just sort of know what song is going to be played and is prepared?
We haven’t rehearsed yet but we’ve talked. We’re going to start rehearsals, some extensive rehearsals, soon.
Do you listen to young players? How do you find people when you’re recruiting bandmembers?
Well, I have friends of mine in the business who send me records or CDs I guess of people who they think I should hear and that they’re excited about. So I sort of try to keep up through my friends in the business, because I myself don’t go out. I live some distance from the city and I’m somewhat of a recluse, I could say, so I’m not around to hear anybody in person. But I do listen to people when I’m playing festivals, sometimes I have an opportunity to hear other groups, and then I keep up by guys sending me records – ‘You should hear this guy, Sonny,’ blah blah blah, like that.
Are there particular performances that linger in your memory, or does a show disappear as soon as you play it?
Well, unfortunately, shows disappear the next day after I play them. But I do record my performances, so if there’s something that happens that’s of exceptional quality I can refer to it later. As a rule, it’s very difficult to really – and I don’t listen to my records, I don’t listen to the mix of what I played that night. I don’t do it. So I would say that unless it was something exceptional that I played and the night itself was exceptional, I probably forget about it in a day or two.
Have you ever retired a song because you’ve decided after hundreds of versions, I’ve said everything I can say with this melody?
Yes, that has happened, but strangely enough, after I’ve retired a song for the reasons you suggested, that I’ve played it so much it plays itself, it comes back to me some years later and then I want to play it again. There’s certain songs that’s happened to that I used to play and then I’d gotten everything I could get out of them and I’d stop playing them for a year, two years, three years, four years, whatever. And then somehow they’ll come back to me and I’ll feel like, wow, I can do something with this song, it has such a strong affinity with who I am that I think I want to try it again, I have some more to say on it.
A lot of the records that people associate with you most strongly are of you playing with no piano. Is the enforced chord structure of the piano something you rebel against?
Well, the piano is an instrument which has 88 keys on it as you know, and it is a very dominant instrument. In other words, if you play in a piano trio, piano and a bass player and a drummer, the piano fills up the whole landscape. As well it should in that configuration. But as a performing artist and as a person who composes in my own mind while I’m playing, I’m creating my own landscapes, and the piano can be too dominating. I’ve played with some great piano players in my life, fortunately, but I’ve gravitated to the pianoless format because it gave me more of a chance to think and to create my own images of what I want to create. And it’s hard to do that with a piano. I remember when I had a piano player with me – a very fine piano player, by the way – I’d go into the club that night, if it was a club I was playing or a concert or whatever – and the piano player would be playing, you know warming up, and these chords would be so dominant they would crowd out of my mind anything that I might be thinking. So I realized that for the type of work that I do, it’s better for me to have – if I want a chordal instrument or a harmonic instrument, I get a guitar, because a guitar has the chords and harmonics but it’s not constantly playing. It’s not always there. I want the freedom, I want the space, I want to create my own images, and I can’t do that with a piano.
What kind of drummers are you generally attracted to playing with? Cause when I saw you in 1997 you had Al Foster behind you, a really heavy hitter…
When you say heavy hitter, you mean it in what sense?
He hits very hard and swings very hard, and there are other players who have a more subtle, dancing rhythm…
Like Roy Haynes, you mean.
Exactly. Or like Tony Williams was.
Right, Tony Williams. Who I played with. So which do I prefer? Well, it depends. Sometimes I prefer one approach, sometimes I prefer another. It depends on the talent of the particular drummer. If I have a drummer playing with me who has the hard approach like Al Foster, he might bring enough to the table that I can accept everything else because what he brings is strong enough that it makes up for the fact that he’s not as subtle as somebody else might be. So it depends on the individual. Roy Haynes was an example of a subtle drummer. Tony might also be described as a heavy hitter, he might not have swung the way that Al Foster did. He played a lot of drums, with a lot of volume going on. I don’t know if you agree with that or not.
Well, when he was playing with Miles there was a lot of light touch going on. They would really pull the rhythm apart.
Yeah, back then you had Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter and they were playing more, accompanying Miles. But once he left Miles, I wouldn’t put him in the category of a light-hitting drummer. But it depends on the musician. There’s so much to music that I never want to inhibit a person from playing the way they play. And so I’m very careful. When a person has great musical sensibilities, great time feeling, then I’m inclined to give them a head, so to speak, and that would be playing less time than I would play with a lighter touch. I’m very open, I don’t have any strict dictums that I say people must do this or that. I believe in the freedom of jazz. I think jazz is suck a beautiful force because it is free and it lets people express themselves. As long as we are on basically the same page, which you have to be otherwise it’s cacophony and not harmony. As long as people have that sensibility, then I like things to be not planned out. Miles was like that too. Miles never wanted to talk to anybody and tell them what to play, and I’m like that. I hate to talk to musicians. If they’re capable of playing with me then they should know what to do. And Miles was like that, too. Yes, you have to at times, but generally, no. I don’t want to talk and have to explain well, this is what you should do and this is what happens here and this happens there. I think I shouldn’t have to do that, so I believe in that jazz is free expression. It’s the only music that gives the performer that much freedom, and that’s sort of the aspect of it that I love.
Is there still an element of surprise? Can a musician you’re playing with still catch you off balance?
Well, throw me off balance, I don’t like the term much. But sure, I’m open to anything a guy plays. I don’t prescribe what my accompanists should play at all, so yeah, I hear lots of things that make me say, wow, great. And I surprise myself. I’ve played and heard things come out of me that – of course, the way I improvise is I don’t think. The thinking goes to the subconscious. I just learn the basic materials, harmony, melody and all these things, then I forget it so that the subjective can really come to the fore. That’s what I feel is real jazz improvisation. I’m not looking to just play the same licks as before over and over again. I think that’s not really improvisation. So I surprise myself at times because as I said I’m not thinking. As a matter of fact, you might have read this before because I’ve said it a couple of times, but I used to pick out little clever riffs, I’d hear it somewhere and think, wow, that would go well with this particular song in our repertoire, I’ll bring this into the gig tonight and I’ll fit it in there and everybody will think Sonny Rollins is really clever. But I can’t do it. I can’t do it, because the music is going so fast that by the time I’m trying to think of a way to put this clever little riff in, it’s too late, it’s gone by already. The moment that it would fit. So you see it’s impossible to think and play at the same time when you’re doing real improvisation. And I’ve tried it, but now I think the heck with it. I’ll try to get to a state where your subconscious is working. That’s real improvisation. Then something’s happening that hasn’t been played out already. And that’s what I do, that’s what I try to do, that’s what I’ve been working towards all my life and I’m still working towards it, you know.