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Sonny Rollins: Bright Moments

The legendary saxophonist takes us through highlights of his discography from the past 50-plus years

Sonny Rollins (photo: Mamadi Doumbouya)
Sonny Rollins (photo: Mamadi Doumbouya)

“I don’t listen to my own music,” Sonny Rollins said in October from his Woodstock home, chewing a Ricola cough drop as he got ready to reflect back on a lot of it. The one exception is if it comes on the radio he often has playing in the background. Yet he did listen to and approve of Rollins in Holland, the recently released discovery from Resonance Records in partnership with the Dutch Jazz Archive. The album unearths more than two electrifying hours of music recorded live and in the studio in the Netherlands in May 1967 with drummer Han Bennink and bassist Ruud Jacobs. (Full disclosure: I wrote a 9,000-word essay for the album booklet that covers the live and studio sessions in detail.) On those recordings, Sonny played a Buescher tenor he got in Holland in 1965 from the widow of a noted Dutch saxophonist, Jos van Heuverzwijn. He loved that horn so much he used to kiss it good night.

For this Bright Moments feature, we took Rollins in Holland as a starting point and moved forward chronologically through a mix of studio and live albums. “Probably most of the things you’re going to play I haven’t heard in many, many, many, many, many years,” Sonny said. The perennially self-deprecating jazz icon ultimately didn’t want to hear any of it, though: “I don’t want to have to say, ‘Okay, that’s enough.’” Hearing it, he explained, could bother him “for the next year, or the next life. Virgos do have that quaint thing about themselves.” One thing he does feel positive about is the cough drops he was chewing. “They’re the greatest,” he said, adding that he used to take several bags on tour to share with his band. “Anyway, I’m glad there’s something good that people produce in this world.”

Although he may disagree, Sonny Rollins has produced more good than most, and we barely skimmed the surface. I cover every one of his albums, and much more, in the biography I’ve been writing for the past five years, Saxophone Colossus: The Life and Music of Sonny Rollins, based on extensive archival research and conversations with Sonny and more than 200 others, forthcoming from Hachette Books.

How is Sonny feeling lately? Spiritually, he said, “I couldn’t feel better. I feel great, man. The physical part of it to me is just that—physical. You know, we’re all going to get sick. That’s what this little picture’s about. The body gets sick, and turns back into dust. But the soul is what makes it, as we can understand it at least. Try to understand why we’re here, and realize we’re not here to be a body looking at things. That’s so small.” Looking back at his career a month after his ninetieth birthday, Sonny referred to John Coltrane as “our prophet,” and I suggested that it was nice that one of our prophets is still walking the earth, preaching the Golden Rule. “Wait a minute! I’m not ready for that yet, man,” he said. “I hope I get ready for that, but if I don’t do it this time, I guarantee you, my next trip I’ll have all of this stuff in my mind, so the next soul incarnation I’ll be closer to this understanding. ’Cause I’ve learned. I’ve seen a lot of stuff.” Here is some of it.

L to R: Han Bennink, Ruud Jacobs, and Rollins, Arnhem, Netherlands, May 3, 1967 (photo: Toon Fey)
L to R: Han Bennink, Ruud Jacobs, and Rollins, Arnhem, Netherlands, May 3, 1967 (photo: Toon Fey)

Rollins in Holland (Resonance, recorded 1967, released 2020) 
Rollins, tenor saxophone; Ruud Jacobs, bass; Han Bennink, drums

Since the nature of our group concept was one of solely improvisation, we were very much aided by the crowd—the audience. And I think in general that’s true. Very often in those days the audience played a big part in my improvisation, in that even though I wanted to eliminate them from my consciousness, the fact that they were there and were lending some kind of enthusiastic background was essential. Whereas when I’m playing in a studio, as we did in Rollins in Holland—there were a couple studio performances with the same group, who … by the way, that was our first encounter. We didn’t rehearse, to my recollection, so it was very much spontaneity at its highest. Usually, if we’re in the studio, I used to be very paranoid about that. I hated to go into a studio and everybody was there and then the red light was on and then I had to play. It was just a very artificial situation for me. I always prefer to be assisted by the audience, but not to the extent that I’m depending on them to add to my improvisations. And in general, that’s what the difference is in my playing, in the way I was playing then—improvisatory—instruments together.

Sonny Rollins’ Next Album (Milestone, 1972)
Rollins, tenor and soprano saxophone; George Cables, electric and acoustic piano; Bob Cranshaw, acoustic and electric bass; David Lee, Jack DeJohnette, drums; Arthur Jenkins, congas, percussion

Since Coltrane had reintroduced the soprano, everybody had started playing soprano. It was sort of the thing to do after Coltrane. So I think that’s why I was playing. I like the soprano, but I don’t think I would have gotten into it had not Coltrane made it sort of de rigueur for everybody to play it.

I had my freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. With these record companies and so on that were the producers, they generally left it up to me because of the way I play and the type of artist that I am. It’s very hard for them to say, “Oh well Sonny, do this idea we have, play with this guy, or let’s play this music.” Generally, my producers left it to me because they felt that I thrived when I had my own complete concept. So that was mainly the story of my relationship with [producer] Orrin [Keepnews]. He didn’t try to produce in the sense of suggesting things. Or maybe he did at one time, but anyway, he realized, “Let Sonny do his whole concept. It’s gonna come out better.”

The Cutting Edge (Milestone, 1974)
Rollins, tenor saxophone; Stanley Cowell, piano; Yoshiaki Masuo, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; David Lee, drums; Mtume, congas; Rufus Harley, bagpipes (on “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”)

These are all people that I liked, of course. When I got Rufus, it was the first time he had recorded with me. And by the way, the pronunciation of that is “Swing Low, Sweet Chari-O,” not “Sweet Chariot.” That was really part of Rufus’ repertoire, so that wasn’t my suggestion. He played it as part of his number on the set. I got enamored with the pipes, and I wanted to play. In fact, I bought some bagpipes when I was in London. That’s when I was learning to do the circular breathing, so it was all part of a concept I had on the saxophone that was mimicking, in a sense, the way the bagpipes produce their sounds. And I heard the bagpipes in myself besides just listening. I loved Rufus, but as an instrument I had ideas about one—playing them myself, and two—incorporating their sound some way into my saxophone playing. Now all that didn’t come out. I never got that far into it. I did have my chanter, which I practiced on and all of that. But I didn’t get into that any further.

“I don’t know how long it went on, because I was in excruciating pain. If you ever break your heel, you’ll know what I mean. [Laughs] Try to avoid it.”

Milestone Jazzstars in Concert (Milestone, 1978)
Rollins, tenor and soprano saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Ron Carter, bass; Al Foster, drums

Remember this guy Bill Graham? He was a rock impresario. Well, he was involved with it some kind of way, with the group and the tour. Bill Belmont was involved also. I had played with everybody at different times, so it was certainly not a new group. I played with Ron Carter often; I played with McCoy a little bit, not a whole lot; I played with Al Foster prior to that. So I had played with those guys. It wasn’t like a brand-new experience. Playing together as a group, that was a little different, because they had all played under my direction when I played with them before, so this was a different configuration really.

I remember playing at the White House, of course [on June 18, 1978 –Ed.]. And shaking hands with Jimmy Carter, and we all got a souvenir picture of shaking hands with the president at that time. And I remember on the occasion, Eubie Blake was there; the bass player we used to call the Judge, Milt Hinton, he was there. There was a gang of people there. It was really quite remarkable. Ornette Coleman was there. I remember talking to Ornette. My wife was there with me. It was a really hot day, a typical Washington, D.C. day, and they had this pie. What’s this pie they have down south … pecan pie? I remember the pecan pie that was there. Lots of pecan pie. It was really great. Anyway, I might have missed [Carter] singing, but I heard that he was a jazz fan and all this stuff, and he made everyone there feel quite at home. He and his wife Rosalynn. They were great hosts, and made us all feel like we were just a big old country get-together.

JT: I have a feeling the current occupant of the White House is not a fan.

ROLLINS: [Laughs] Well, he might not be a fan, but I am also not a fan of his, so the feeling is mutual. So if I was invited, I don’t know if I would go or not.

Don’t Ask (Milestone, 1979) 
Rollins, tenor saxophone, lyricon, piano; Mark Soskin, piano, electric piano, synthesizer; Larry Coryell, electric guitar; Jerome Harris, electric bass; Al Foster, drums; Bill Summers, congas, percussion

That was the only time [Larry Coryell and I] worked together. We were sort of in different genres. What do you call that? Jazz fusion? Especially around that time, people used that term a lot. It was okay. I didn’t have any antipathy towards it. You know? It was okay.

What happened was during that period of time, this sort of fusion was the big thing. So for some reason, the people that I grew up with—Monk, Miles, et al.—they weren’t being heard as much. Some people call that “con-fusion,” but I didn’t go to that level. I respected it. So anyway, “Disco Monk.” There was so much disco-type music going on at that time, which is okay, I have no problem with any kind of music. But the sentiment was that I wanted people to remember Monk. You know, and not forget Monk with all of this disco stuff. So that was the reason for that song, “Disco Monk.” That’s what it was all about.

Aidan Levy

In addition to JazzTimes, Aidan Levy’s work has appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Nation. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he specializes in jazz studies. He has played baritone saxophone with the Stan Rubin Orchestra, Cotton Club All-Stars, and various other groups. His biography of Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, was published by Hachette in 2022.