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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)

The Solo Album (Milestone, 1985) 
Rollins, tenor saxophone

I had been going to my dentist, and something he was doing with my teeth made my embouchure not as comfortable, but I had no time to see him before the show, and so it wasn’t my best. I wasn’t as comfortable as I would like to have been to be playing all the time and just being able to concentrate on the music, so let me say that first. However, that has nothing to do with people listening to it—you listening to it, anybody listening to it—and having an opinion about it. So that made it a little uncomfortable for me to do it. Now I had some music that I had written out, some motifs for the performance, and I think I tried to refer to them at one part of the concert, and then I had this little problem with my embouchure, so it was a struggle. Well, I can say that about any performance I do: It wasn’t quite what I would have wanted it to be. But in this one I had to do everything—I’m playing solo. I couldn’t depend on anyone else to fill in.

I played at the Whitney [on February 18, 1969 –Ed.], I think I did that solo also. At the [1969] Berkeley Jazz Festival, I just went out and played, and it turned out fine. I remember I had two horns. I had my Selmer and I also had my Buescher, and I had been in that phase where I was carrying two horns. So I played one half with the Selmer and came back for the encore section with the other horn. But anyway, that showed me I could do that—play solo and just play to the people and just play what came into my mind, and I could reach the people, because I reached them. It was a wonderful communion. And a friend of mine said, “Oh Sonny, man, that was great. You sound like a country preacher.” Of course, I was walking around also, I wasn’t standing still, like I was later—on The Solo Album, as a matter of fact. But that gave me the impetus to realize, “Hey, I can do this,” and not only can I do it, but it feels very natural and correct.

G-Man (Milestone, recorded in 1986, released 1987)
Rollins, tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Mark Soskin, piano; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums

Well, I jumped off the stage, because I didn’t realize how deep it was. During that time, I used to leave the bandstand and walk around the club and then return to the bandstand, you know. So I guess I liked playing by myself. The band would be accompanying, but I would just be not on the bandstand with them. So I did that a lot. Now I didn’t realize how high up we were at this—Opus 40 [in Saugerties, N.Y.] was the place. So that’s why I jumped off. It wasn’t that I thought I was Superman or something like that. I thought that I would just land on the ground and keep playing. Well, I did land on the ground and keep playing, but I didn’t realize it would be under duress. I broke my heel, and see, I kept playing because, you know, the show must go on. I don’t want to stop the show because I jumped off the stand. That had nothing to do with the show. So anyway, I kept playing as long as I could. 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.

Falling in Love with Jazz (Milestone, 1989)
Rollins, tenor saxophone; Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Mark Soskin, Tommy Flanagan, piano; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Jerome Harris, electric and acoustic guitar, electric bass; Jack DeJohnette, Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums

[“The Tennessee Waltz”] was a little bit outside the repertoire and what we could do at the time. I wanted to have a real country sound, although it was me playing, but I wanted to bend the genres there and still be a piece of itself. I remember I played that down in Nashville. I remember when it came out. I heard it on the radio from some station. I used to hear stations from different parts of the country at that time, not as far as the West Coast but almost up to the divide there. But anyway, I was happy with that attempt to, as I said, go outside of the norm but still remain true to the norm.

I listened to a lot of country when I was growing up. We used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry when it came on. Roy Acuff and all those people. Cousin Minnie Pearl. I think the Grand Ole Opry used to be on every week. We had it on in our house all the time—regularly. The radio was the thing in those days. They used to have amateur night in Harlem coming from the Apollo Theater. We wouldn’t miss that. And the Opry.

At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 19, 1985 (photo: Alan Nahigian)
At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 19, 1985 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Here’s to the People (Milestone, 1991) 
Rollins, tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Roy Hargrove, trumpet; Mark Soskin, piano; Jerome Harris, guitar; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Jack DeJohnette, Steve Jordan, Al Foster, drums

The first time I came in contact with Roy was at a George Wein show that was done on the East River pier. It was a nice place, really. You know, the yachts were going up and down, guys racing down the river. Anyway, that’s the first time I heard Roy play, and so we, my wife and myself—she was still on the planet at that time—we said, “Boy, this guy is good!” I had a concert coming up at Carnegie Hall. He was new in town, I didn’t know anything about him. So I said, “Let’s see if he would accept being a guest on this Carnegie Hall concert.” He said yeah. And that was great. And then he did the concert, everybody loved it, we made that record together, and the rest is history. Roy was quite a musician and quite a musical personality, and he just was sort of a mystical, beatific character, you know, and … he was here and he left. A great guy and a superb musician.

Global Warming (Milestone, 1998)
Rollins, tenor saxophone; Stephen Scott, piano, kalimba; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Idris Muhammad, Perry Wilson, drums; Victor See Yuen, percussion

The album could have been called Global Warning as well as Global Warming. Same. Nothing was done about it, and here we are deeper in the hole now. I read The End of Nature [by Bill McKibben –Ed.]. I was interested in politics. I have always been interested in politics, and there were some other books that I was reading at the time, also about global warming.

They’re clear-cutting the forest. There’s a guy up, I think it’s in Massachusetts, where they have this governor Charlie Baker, and somebody was an environmentalist [Chris Matera –Ed.] who made a critique of what was happening. He said the state was planning to clear-cut a huge part of the forest that they have in Massachusetts and it was unconscionable that somebody would be allowing that to happen. It just shows that people don’t care about the environment, and therefore there’s something deeply wrong with the soul of the world. Because we’ve known about global warming for a while now. We’ve known about it.

When I did Global Warming, I had been reading things about that aspect of the environment for at least 10, 15, maybe 20 years. But I just heard this [about Matera] the other day. So they’re still doing it. It shows you that you can’t look at just this world—at this place. You can’t look at life like this is separate from the universe. You’ve got to connect everything that we’re involved in on this little planet to the universe, ’cause other than that, what are we? You see what we’re doing. We’re destroying the planet. We are sawing the limb that we’re sitting on.

“What do you call that? Jazz fusion? Some people call that ‘con-fusion,’ but I didn’t go to that level. I respected it.”

Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone, recorded 2001, released 2005)
Rollins, tenor saxophone; Clifton Anderson, trombone; Stephen Scott, piano; Bob Cranshaw, electric bass; Perry Wilson, drums; Kimati Dinizulu, percussion

Well, my wife [Lucille] decided to do it, because I was evacuated from the [apartment] building close to the World Trade Center [the day after 9/11]. I was living up in Germantown [in Columbia County, N.Y.] at the time as well. So I got up to Germantown, and of course I was completely, I had to walk down … in the city we lived on the top floor, so I think it was 40 stories down. There was no power or anything. So they had the National Guard. There were about three of us left in the building. Anyway, we had to walk down those steps, man, and I was in no physical shape to do anything. But my wife said, “No, Sonny, we must do this concert [in Boston on September 15].” You know … I was thinking about myself. I don’t feel … I can hardly think. I mean, it was so much that happened, and being right in the middle of it. It was like a war zone. Stuff I used to see in World War II movies. You know, people were all over, and they had a place set up there with people shocked and people hurt. It was just a real disaster scene down there. There was also an odor. That odor was there for many months after that when I had to come down to my apartment. I think it started maybe around Canal Street and going downtown. It wasn’t nice, either.

So anyway, [Lucille] was right, because there’s no point in my just stewing in my own juice, so to speak, during that time, and be all messed up in thinking about this thing that just happened. It was the best thing to do it, and besides that, it was beneficial to some people to hear us playing right after that incident. It was inspirational. My wife opened my eyes. I said, “Okay, she’s right,” and if I was thinking clearly, I would have realized that it was my opportunity to do something right, which was the concert, instead of thinking about myself—what a bad situation I was in and how I was put upon and all this stuff. Instead of thinking like that, I should do something for other people. And I didn’t quite look at it like I was that important, but in retrospect now, I began thinking, “Yeah, well, it’s not about me. It’s about doing something for somebody else.” 

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 PhD 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. He is at work on a biography of Sonny Rollins for Da Capo Press.