Thursday, June 20, 2013

Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus of the Universe!

There’s the wind, the rain, the sunshine……and there’s Sonny Rollins. Phrases like “force of nature” are so shopworn and hackneyed it really is a pity when a situation comes along when it’s actually appropriate to use them and it just falls so short of the intention. What a disciplined, spontaneous-playing musician does in a jazz setting can be frustratingly difficult for writers to accurately convey with the emotionally-removed written word. Jazz music, indeed the very use of the word “jazz”, is an attempt by sentient beings to intellectually grapple with an art form whose characterizing qualities flow from…..THE FLOW itself. The flow of thought, feeling….being. “Jazz” has been identified as a box into which a distinctively American art form can be funneled into for marketing purposes and/or discussion purposes. Using the word “jazz” can ensure a musician has an audience. Nothing wrong with that, since musicians need to have audiences. The intellectuals can spend their time debating what is or isn’t jazz. Not surprisingly, more than a few prosperous musicians have expressed a reluctance to engage their time in pursuing those arguments when they could just be doing what they love to do – CREATING.

Yet, if there is any one singular instrument that, by its very existence communicates the concept of “jazz” it is the tenor saxophone. Without getting into a whole history of this instrument suffice to say that saxophones in general are a fairly new invention in the grand scheme of the history of western music. Suffice also to say that there have been no shortages of great tenor sax players before the arrival of Sonny Rollins and along the pathway of his long career into the present times. Yet, Sonny Rollins may very well be the greatest living exponent of this instrument within the jazz genre today. Especially if one considers how much of jazz music history he has personally witnessed and participated in (and continues to do so!). As he heads into his 80s, Sonny Rollins is still a working, performing and developing musician. Yes – a “force of nature”!

As could be expected I do eagerly offer up my confession to being a Sonny Rollins listener / fan / admirer / vibration sponge.  And there is plenty to absorb – many recordings and videos to bask in. It is with regret that I also must confess that I have yet to witness Sonny Rollins live in concert – a situation I hope to rectify soon! Even still – I will call myself a fan. Despite the fact that I don’t own all of his recordings and not even some of the “classic” ones – I don’t have “The Bridge” yet (heresy, I know). But Sonny Rollins as the performing and recording artist is only one piece of the puzzle. For me, his contributions as a composer account for my initial enthusiasm for his art.

My Sonny Rollins fandom really began when I heard the Miles Davis Quintet recording of Sonny’s composition “Airegin” on the radio. It was the version on the “Cookin’” album. Thank goodness the DJ announced where the song came from because I would have been searching high and low for this exciting recording. As luck would have it, my local record shop had a vinyl copy of this album in stock when I went looking and I was enthralled with this exciting piece of music. Yet, the first time I heard Sonny Rollins as the sax player must have been (along with a fair chunk of music fans) when the Rolling Stones hired him to add tenor sax to their minor early 80s hit song “Waiting on a Friend”. Very classy move on the Stones’ part. Not to mention very appropriate, even on a socio-geographic level. The Stones song was rumored to be a somewhat veiled tribute to John Lennon, who was living in Manhattan when he was cruelly murdered in front of his apartment building on that fateful night in December 1980. What better way to honor Lennon’s love for New York City than to feature a true New York artist like Sonny Rollins? Yes, Sonny was born in New York although he strikes me as being the least provincial New Yorker to reach an international level of fame. Although his “New Yorkness” is somewhat subdued I still like to think of him as a fellow Empire State resident to look up to. In fact, his other main residence besides Manhattan is only a few miles up the Hudson River from me. Not that I’ve ever bumped into him shopping or anything….heh heh! Among the great contributions New York has made to music, I’d have to place Sonny Rollins very to near to, if not at the peak of, the TOP.

In fact, my next Sonny Rollins knockout moment is further rooted in New York experiences. When attending a New York State college I took a great jazz history course. The professor was a talented older gentleman who had played oboe with Charlie Parker’s strings / orchestra performances. In class one day he played a live recording of Sonny Rollins – totally solo! – at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. The recording was issued as “The Solo Album” and it blew my circuits! It was 45 minutes of Sonny Rollins un-accompanied – totally inspired, engaging and entertaining. I still love this record, or should I say CD? I ran down to the local record store in my college town and the only copy they had of this was an expensive Japanese import CD which I dutifully snapped up with never a moment of regret (the exact price of which has long since evaporated from my consciousness). It remains one of my favorite albums from any genre / artist / etc………a desert island disc for sure.
This began a long process of picking up any random Sonny Rollins albums I found along the way – usually the offbeat releases like “East Broadway Run Down”. Each record I brought home challenged my perceptions about jazz and prompted re-evaluation of what I thought I knew about this music. And it seems that re-evaluation is a central theme to Sonny Rollins as an artist. His famous sabbaticals – once in the early 60s and again in the late 60s – served as an interesting blueprint for what lengths an artist, even of his stature, may find it necessary to do in the name of re-uniting with a (possibly) wayward muse. Here’s a great clip of Sonny explaining in quite plain and direct terms what the philosophy behind these re-evaluation periods was and still is.
Each of the two sabbaticals would yield similar results. Upon his first re-entry into musical orbit in the early 60s, Sonny would align himself with a major record company (RCA) and put out some of his most successful recordings. He then jumped over to the hip Impulse label for a few more records that gave him a chance to stretch out a bit with the newer, free-er jazz. Yet, by 1966 he would bow out again until about 1971. When he returned in full force this time, it was for the long haul – which continues to the present times! He signed on with a smaller record label (Milestone Records) and proceeded to put out yearly LP releases which favored accessibility over experimentation, much to the chagrin of hipper-than-thou critics. I don’t own all of these albums, but I’m working on it! Commercial-sounding as some of these records might be, Sonny Rollins as the artist is never swallowed up in whatever sonic carnival he’s in the middle of. He’s still Sonny and that’s part of his artistry.

Whether he’s alone in a museum or with a full band – whether he’s playing some extended “out” stuff or familiar melodies from showtunes – it’s ALL him. His musical voice cuts through it all. Here’s my BIG Sonny Rollins theory……….It’s about environments. The landscape can change, the backdrop could be anything – any sonic environment you like……when Sonny Rollins starts blowing he is in tune with his world yet simultaneously retains his individual identity. If other players want to play with him, that’s cool. If not, he’s still swinging in his own groove and worth listening to. Not many artists are able to achieve that kind of confidence and one-ness with whatever environment they happen to be in at any given moment. Sonny Rollins sounds at ease EVERYWHERE. If ever there was an ultimate example of “Citizen of the Universe” – Sonny Rollins is it. I can’t think of anything cooler than that.

    Sonny Rollins’ output for Milestone spanned the period between 1972 and 2001. One noteworthy sidestep from this commitment is Sonny Rollins in Japan – a live album recorded and released only in Japan! I couldn’t find a legitimate domestic release of this thing so……..I ordered a used LP from Japan! I’d heard track off the album and once again – I had to have it! Here’s that cut – an extended piece called “Powai”.
Maybe even more intense – video from a mid-80s live performance in Saugerties, NY. If you like this, it comes from a high quality film now on dvd called “Saxophone Colossus”.
If you’ve made it this far, I’d recommend spending a little time listening to the man himself in a very thoughtful, reflective and inspiring extended recent interview here:
Is there anyone cooler than Sonny Rollins? Not in my opinion, squire!