April 6, 2010


The onliest Sonny: Rollins looks at 80 (JON GARELICK, April 6, 2010, Boston Phoenix)

It’s Rollins’s thirst for that magic of pure invention that still drives him. When I get him on the phone at his home in New Paltz, New York, he laughs heartily at my awkward attempt to complement him on his longevity as a performer. “I’m still looking for that lost chord,” he says. “Something in my dreams. Or at least get closer to it. That’s why I’m still out here, really.”

In a now-famous 1959 article in the Jazz Review, Gunther Schuller analyzed the thematic and structural unity of the solo improvisation on Rollins’s recording of “Blue 7.” The article was said to have depressed Rollins, what with his unconscious, extemporaneous outpouring being treated like exacting compositional deliberation. In fact, like fellow saxophonist Lee Konitz, he’s looking to begin an improvisation with a blank mind. “The ideas, that part of it, is all done in the preparation. Learning the song, the harmonic changes, words, if you want to do that. Then when you get into the performance, you don’t have to think about that.”

At times in concert, Rollins will pound at the melody of a tune, repeating it over and over, until it reveals its secrets and his imagination runs loose. At such moments, he might cut the band for a lengthy cadenza, in which his playing becomes a kind of speaking in tongues — fragments of melodies and quoted phrases from other tunes, burly atonal clusters of notes, all tumbling out in a torrent. Lightning has struck. Rollins has said that an especially long improvisation can sometimes indicate frustration: that lost chord is eluding him. In the past, he’s been notoriously self-critical, and he still doesn’t like to listen to his own playing unless a recording project requires it. How does he assess his own playing these days?

“Over the many years I’ve been performing, it’s been such a big issue with me: ‘Gee, did I play good? Did I sound good?’ ” Now, he says, he’s satisfied to reach a standard that he feels is worthy of his audience, even if he’d like to go beyond that. “At one time in my career, I didn’t have a gauge of what that standard was, and if I felt blue, I was really blue after a show. That was a big thing for me for a while. Now I’ve sort of evened that out to where I can give a standard performance and not be ready to kill myself when I get off the stage.” [...]

His material these days tends to funk and calypsos and old songs that you wouldn’t necessarily call standards because not many people play them — like Frank Loesser & Alfred Newman’s “The Moon of Manakoora,” from This Is What I Do (2000), which he remembered Dorothy Lamour singing in The Hurricane, a 1937 John Ford movie that his mother took him to when he was about nine. A song appeals to Rollins because “it strikes some kind of a familiar chord someplace in my psyche.” Jazz musicians generally are attracted to songs with chords that offer good opportunities for improvisation, but Rollins says, “Usually, if I like a song, the first thing that is going to attract me is the melody. Which means the harmonic underpinnings, also — it means the whole song. So if I like the song, that automatically means it’s something I can improvise on.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 6, 2010 7:00 PM
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