Born: September 7, 1930 Primary Instrument: Saxophone
It’s no state secret that Sonny Rollins has never been fond of the recording studio. Never mind that he’s recorded his full share of gems there—not only early, celebrated albums such as Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West, but also digital-era efforts such as Old Flames and This Is What I Do. The man often embraced as the greatest living improviser requires too much creative freedom to start playing, as he puts it, “when the red light comes on.” And his perfectionism makes it difficult, sometimes painfully so, to go through multiple takes in search of what he thinks is the least flawed one. ...
It’s no state secret that Sonny Rollins has never been fond of the recording studio. Never mind that he’s recorded his full share of gems there—not only early, celebrated albums such as Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West, but also digital-era efforts such as Old Flames and This Is What I Do. The man often embraced as the greatest living improviser requires too much creative freedom to start playing, as he puts it, “when the red light comes on.” And his perfectionism makes it difficult, sometimes painfully so, to go through multiple takes in search of what he thinks is the least flawed one.
But in Rollins’s preferred element—on stage, in front of an adoring crowd, free to follow his every impulse and dazzle with his inventions—he is fully at home. And that’s not just because in those situations this iconic tenor saxophonist is unencumbered by time restraints and issues in the control booth. The best thing about performing for him, by far, is seeing how happy his playing makes all the excited people who turn out to see him.
The next best thing is making some of those performances—ones “that present parts of me I want to have presented”—available on record to his fans. With the expert help of longtime associate Richard Corsello, his engineer at Fantasy during the 1980s, that’s what Rollins has been doing with his remarkable Road Shows series, an ongoing collection of concert highlights being released on his own Doxy Records label.
Road Shows, vol. 1, which came out in 2008, was largely drawn from superfan Carl Smith’s tapes, spanning nearly 30 years. It climaxed with a 2007 performance of “Some Enchanted Evening” by a trio for the ages featuring Roy Haynes and Christian McBride. All of the music on the second volume, released in 2011, was recorded in 2010, including highlights from Rollins’s 80th birthday concert, featuring his first-ever encounter with Ornette Coleman.
Road Shows, vol. 3—which is being distributed under the terms of a new agreement by Sony Music Masterworks through its revived jazz imprint, OKeh Records—was recorded between 2001 and 2012 in Saitama, Japan; Toulouse, Marseille, and Marciac, France; and St. Louis, Missouri. It features a familiar core band including pianist Stephen Scott, trombonist Clifton Anderson, and Rollins's bassist of a half-century, Bob Cranshaw, with Bobby Broom and Peter Bernstein alternating on guitar; Kobie Watkins, Perry Wilson, Steve Jordan, or Victor Lewis on drums; and Kimati Dinizulu or Sammy Figueroa on percussion.
As one has come to expect from Rollins, the six songs on Volume 3 are no mere vehicles on which to hang sets of changes. Meaningful bridges between past and present, they capture his essential Sonnyness while illuminating the new directions in which he is perpetually pointed.
The material reflects an artist who has become as enthralled by narrative lines as melodic. Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You” takes him back to his boyhood days, when it was the theme for the long-running radio show, Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. “Somebody would come on and say, oh, Mr. Keen, my father-in-law disappeared, and they’d go through adventures to find the guy in 15 minutes,” he says with a laugh. “Then the theme would come on.”
The infectious “Biji,” introduced on the 1995 album, Sonny +3, was written “back in the days when guys had nicknames like Rahsaan and Famoudou. I adopted Brung Biji as mine. It was sort of African style.”
“Patanjali,” heard here in its recorded debut, is a piece Rollins worked on for quite some time. It was named after the sage whose Yoga Sutras, he said, “lay down everything you need to know” about a discipline and philosophy that “has helped me get through life and kept me trying to be a better human being.” Yoga also enhances the art of improvisation, he said, in helping you “reach your subconscious. You can’t improvise and think at the same time. You’ll be too late.”
The nearly 24-minute rendering of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s masterwork, “Why Was I Born,” is as moving as it is breathtaking—a monument to Rollins’s emotional powers. He won a 2006 Grammy for his version of it on Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, performing it in Boston five days after the terrorist attack on New York, which forced him to evacuate his apartment.
“I’ve played it a lot,” he said. “So I was wondering whether I should put it out again. I decided to because it captured me going in certain directions I felt needed to be put on record. I actually had two versions to choose from. On one of them, everything was quite clean. On this one, I played something I might be the only one who likes. But I liked the groove and a lot of other things. It represents Sonny Rollins at a certain point of creation.
And then, in addition to a brief, album-closing dose of his perennial crowd- pleaser, “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” there is an eight-minute, stand-alone cadenza taken from a 2009 St. Louis show. If the narrative line here is a bit more abstract than on the other tracks, it is no less compelling—Sonny at the top of his game.
One of the reasons an artist forms his own label is to be able to make these kinds of tracks available to the public. Rollins established Doxy, named after one of his most recorded classics, in 2005, at a time of personal upheaval. The previous year, his beloved wife and invaluable business partner Lucille Rollins died, and his longtime affiliation with Milestone Records came to a close. As other leading jazz labels bit the dust or downsized, and technology began making it easier for jazz artists to record and release music, several of them took their future into their own hands by starting their own imprints.
“Everyone was saying it’s the way to go, without knowing much about what it entailed,” says Rollins. “I had enough of a following that I didn’t need to publicize myself. I saw it as the wave of the future, took a dive, and established Doxy.”
The label’s first release, the studio recording Sonny, Please, named after a favorite expression of Lucille’s, garnered a 2007 Grammy nomination.
The son of Virgin Island natives, Theodore Walter Rollins was born in Harlem, New York on September 7, 1930. His uncle, a professional saxophonist, introduced him to jazz and blues. Sonny grew up close to the Savoy Ballroom and Apollo Theater, which he and boyhood friends including Jackie McLean and Kenny Drew were drawn to. Under the influence of neighborhood legend Coleman Hawkins, an early hero of his, he switched from the alto saxophone to tenor at the age of 14.
By the time he was out of high school, smitten with the sound of bop, he was working with such greats as Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and soon recording with Miles Davis and J.J. Johnson. He made his recording debut as a leader with the 1951 Prestige 10-inch album, Sonny Rollins Quartet. After an interlude in Chicago, where he joined the Max Roach-Clifford Brown band during a 1955 engagement of theirs, he recorded such classics as Saxophone Colossus, his groundbreaking work of thematic improvisation, Worktime, Tenor Madness (featuring John Coltrane), and his groundbreaking trio recordings: Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard, and Freedom Suite.
Following his famous sabbatical in 1959, during which he practiced on the Williamsburg Bridge, he formed a famous quartet featuring Jim Hall, led a quartet with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, and lived out a dream by recording with Coleman Hawkins. He took more time off at the end of the ’60s to study Zen Buddhism in Japan and yoga in India. With Lucille handling his business affairs, he returned to recording in 1972 with the coyly titled Next Album for Milestone.
A steady stream of recordings followed, many co-produced by Sonny and Lucille, in formats that variously featured electric instruments, horn sections, and, on his daunting Solo Album, no other instruments at all. Rollins also was teamed with young stars such as Branford Marsalis and Roy Hargrove. His success with them as well as prized veterans such as Tommy Flanagan, George Duke, and Tony Williams fed the fire of fans and critics calling for him to put together an all-star band—something Rollins has never been interested in doing.
“I came up in an era, with Gene Ammons and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, where we just got people to back us,” he says. “We weren’t looking to put together a band like the Modern Jazz Quartet but to get people who inspired us to play and, of course, we felt comfortable with. I’ve been true to that model throughout my career.
“All of these people in my bands are top of the line in their own right. It’s a privilege and pleasure to play with them. I get different things from different people. Bobby [Broom] was with me for a long time, Peter [Bernstein] not too long a period, but they’re each distinctive and unique people. It’s good for me to hear different artists.”
The subject of acclaimed documentarian Robert Mugge's 1986 film Saxophone Colossus, Rollins won his first performance Grammy for This Is What I Do (2000). He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2004. In June 2006, he was inducted into the Academy of Achievement at the International Achievement Summit in Los Angeles. The following year, he was awarded the Polar Music Prize in Stockholm. In 2009, he became the third American (after Frank Sinatra and Jessye Norman) to be awarded the Austrian Cross for Science and Art, First Class, and in 2010, the first jazz composer to be named the Edward MacDowell Medalist.
Perhaps the most gratifying, and humbling, honor of all came from President Barack Obama, who in 2011 presented Rollins with the Medal of Arts at the White House. “I’m very happy that jazz, America’s greatest music, is being recognized through this honor,” Rollins commented at the time, “and I’m grateful to accept this award on behalf of the gods of our music.”
Today, Rollins is still chasing his muse—and still writing.
“My big mistake used to be I would get a melody in my head and I wouldn’t write it down right away,” he says. “I’d talk to a guy on the lawn and five minutes later, it was gone. Now, I always keep some music paper and a pencil with me. If I’m driving and a great song comes to me, I pull over and get it down.”
“I was aghast at how good he still is,” said former President Bill Clinton, referring to Road Shows, vol. 2, in his toast to Rollins at the State Department dinner before the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors presentation. “His music can bend your mind, it can break your heart, and it can make you laugh out loud.”
Especially when this one-of-a-kind master is in his element. •