June 27, 2005

CROUCHING TIGER, ENIGMATIC COLOSSUS:

Sonny Rollins: humble, classy, talented (ASHANTE INFANTRY, Jun. 19, 2005, Toronto Star)

[I]t's surprising to see the dedicated musician, a self-described "work in progress" who still practises two hours daily ("I'm trying to get to some unavailable place, I guess"), recently taken to task for his live performances by respected jazz critic Stanley Crouch in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

He writes: "Rollins works at extremes. He is either astounding or barely all right ... When he's on, which is seven or eight times out of ten, Rollins — known as `the saxophone colossus' — seems immense, summoning the entire history of jazz, capable of blowing a hole through the wall. On his off nights, though, he can seem no more than another guy with a saxophone and a band, creeping through a gig."

Ouch.

"It's hard for me to comment because I don't want to sound self-serving," responded Rollins, without a trace of enmity. "It's possible the type of music I'm trying to play is not always going to be where I would like it to be, but I think he may be being a little harsh.

"Stanley is a very conservative guy and he likes things from the '50s. I've had a long career and so he's got an opportunity to compare (newer material) to the things that he likes from the '50s and I think that's why he makes that kind of judgment.

"There's no doubt that I can sound better at times than others, because we're playing spontaneous music and that can happen. But I don't think it's quite as black and white as he said."

He was less diplomatic about Crouch's assertion that when he is faced with a young audience "he often resorts to banal calypso tunes."

"I completely reject that criticism and I think it was based on the fact that he denigrates that type of rhythm and I don't," said the Harlem-born Rollins, whose parents emigrated from the Virgin Islands.

"It's something that I enjoy playing and is a challenge to play, just as much as a lot of the music we play. It's not something I phone in."

The acclaimed improviser, whose collaborators have included Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk and the Rolling Stones, lists saxophonists Joshua Redman, Kenny Garrett and James Carter as favourites on the contemporary scene.

"I think the problem is that jazz itself isn't recognized, isn't promoted, so that these people have a chance to get their stuff heard by more people.

"Jazz has always been the stepchild and it has a lot to do with social issues. It's always been a black art form so therefore it's always been less promoted. I think it's a matter of social attitudes toward the music, which go back unfortunately to times in the past."

How then does he explain the phenomenal success of hip hop, which also began with blacks?

"While I think hip hop is valid music and very good, there are some elements in it which have been criticized — misogyny, elements which people can construe as demeaning to black people. I think that may be why hip hop has the tremendous popularity it has — it might be a way of maintaining a minstrely aspect around black culture."

It's those strong political views (echoed on recordings such as Global Warming), combined with his spiritual pursuits and a tendency to disappear, that cause many to view the yoga-practising, health-conscious country dweller as an enigma.

MORE:
-Q&A: The Jazz Giant: This week in the magazine, Stanley Crouch writes about the jazz tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who, at seventy-four, is in the sixth decade of his remarkable career. Here, Crouch discusses Rollins, jazz, and improvisation with Ben Greenman. (The New Yorker, 2005-05-09)

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2005 11:43 AM
Comments

Gary Giddins and every other honest jazz critic has noted the disparities in quality among Rollins' live performances....and, until his last 5 or 6 CD's, the even more glaring gap between the quality of his best live shows and his studio work from the late 70's through the early-90's. But even a so-so Rollins concert is better than almost anyone else's best nights, and his finest performances are the closest thing to rapture available in the current arts scene.

The Crouch article is not at all negative...Crouch, like all other knowlegable critics is a huge fan and admirer of Rollins, and that comes across in the piece.

It's hard to believe Sonny is going to turn 75 this summer. I can't imagine the world without him, so I hope, that like Benny Carter, he (and we) are blessed with another 20 years of productivity.

Posted by: Foos at June 27, 2005 1:32 PM

I'm almost completely ignorant about jazz, but I did see Sonny (and also Dizzy, on another date) in San Antonio live in the '80s. They blew me away.

I own "Saxophone Colossus". If I wanted to own one or two other Sonny records, which would you recommend?

Posted by: Judd at June 27, 2005 2:01 PM

Rollins live is an awesome thing to behold. He seems somewhat frail but then he's capable of standing up there for hours rocking back and forth and wringing infinite notes out of his instrument during a series of twenty-five minute songs. He often plays a free concert in NYC and I've been hoping for one this year. Last year (or two years ago?) he played Summer Stage in Central Park. When a little drizzle had two thirds of the crowd packing up their wine and brie and fleeing for the exits, Rollins just kept right on going through what seemed like about a three hour show.

And I always like to point out his beautiful contribution to the Stone's "Waiting on a Friend." It always stops me in my tracks, even if these days it's most likely in the middle of a Stop and Shop.

Posted by: David Hill, The Bronx at June 27, 2005 3:15 PM

Judd - Try one of his later CD's, "This is What I Do" or "Old Flames"...He's a different player now, different sound, solos more tied to the melodies, and for the last 20 years or so, Bob Cranshaw on electric bass.

For something more in the vein of "Colossus" check out "Way Out West" with a rollicking version of "I'm An Old Cowhand." Sonny, like Louis Armstrong, has a great ability to take novelty songs and turn them into art.

Posted by: Foos at June 27, 2005 3:46 PM
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