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Sonny Rollins: Summoning the Muse

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins

The new year begins much warmer than usual in New York. Although I love bicycling in the park, 53 degrees on January third just doesn’t feel right. Is it El Niño, global warming or some eleventh hour omen foretelling a pyrrhic millennium apocalypse?

While I surf meteorological websites in search of facts, Lucille Rollins calls from upstate to invite me to a recording session the following Wednesday, Sonny’s first in over two years. Outside of the musicians, engineers and a significant other or two, non-participants aren’t present at a Sonny Rollins recording session. I appreciate this rare opportunity.

About the tunes and players, Lucille reveals she has no idea what will happen until the session itself. Only Sonny does and “right now,” she tells me, “he’s out in his studio practicing, working some things out.” She’s looking forward to going back into the studio. As for Sonny, at this time, studio recordings aren’t his favorite creative venue.

Six weeks later, he tells me that he doesn’t feel the need to document his work. “I’m not one of these people who listen to recordings of myself,” he explains. “That’s an excruciating thing for me to do. If I was a guy who sat down and listened to himself and recorded everything that he did, then it would be informative. It might be helpful in my progress as a musician. But what I’m concerned about is people bootlegging my stuff. I don’t like that. I want to make a finished product that’s really good. That’s what I really care about.”

On January 20, 1949, nineteen-year-old Sonny Rollins first recorded with a group dubbed “The Bebop Professors,” which included vocals by Babs Gonzales. Eight months later, still a month shy of his 20th birthday, he recorded with Bud Powell’s Modernists, which featured Roy Haynes and Fats Navarro.

Nearly 50 years later, Sonny Rollins is still performing and recording, one of the few remaining Greek gods of jazz. Accordingly, he feels a responsibility to represent his esteemed colleagues and their music with honor and respect.

“I’m very selective about the things that I do,” he explains. “I don’t want to be rich, strange as it may seem to most people. I want to live lightly on the planet, I don’t want to be a part of what they used to call the rat race.”

Although he stands at the peak of jazzdom’s Mount Olympus, leading a working group and surviving in America necessitates regular recording. “There are times when you have to make money,” he acknowledges. “I do have a band, I do have to pay rent, etc. I can’t just wait until everything falls into place and say, OK, this is the right time to record.

“I haven’t released a record in quite a while. In fact, I’m way behind my schedule. If I could release a record every year, it would help me keep a certain career momentum, that would be optimum. But I can’t wait around another year and spend the money necessary to rehearse, etc. to try and get another date out. Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of leeway to wait and try again and try again until I find something that I’m completely happy with.”

For the past 26 years, Rollins has recorded for Milestone Records and although he’s under contract, he decides when and what to record, and with the musicians he chooses. Lucille shares the producing credit, taking care of session logistics. It’s the same for his performance schedule: she handles the business, he handles the music. This way, he’s free to concentrate on the music. The labyrinthine nature of the jazz business only serves as a distraction for Sonny. He once told me that he believes there is only one business worse than the music business-boxing.

For this session, the first of two for this new recording, the quartet will include Sonny’s regular bassist Bob Cranshaw and pianist Stephen Scott. And a drummer Sonny has never played with, Idris Muhammad. They will rehearse several times before the date.

On Wednesday, January 7th, I arrive at Clinton Studios just after noon. Three midtown Manhattan blocks away, eight thousand people are registering for the first day of the annual IAJE convention. After the session, I plan on joining them. Most of the participants probably own a Sonny Rollins record or two or ten. There are 64 Sonny Rollins CDs currently available.

I go up to the large studio A and there’s Sonny, setting up. We exchange warm greetings and he mentions a book he later sends me, There’s Nothing In The Middle of the Road But Yellow Stripes And Dead Armadillos. The author, Jim Hightower, is an activist who wants to “take America back from the bankers and bosses, the big shots and bastards.” I know Hightower from his radio program and website. Over the years, Sonny has turned me onto a number of authors, the most significant being Noam Chomsky. But this is not a time for political discussion although Rollins, a well read, insightful man, is one of the most socially conscious, spiritually minded people I know. A conversation with Sonny can include everything from ideas about the environment he picked up from a book he’s reading or heard on the radio, or jokes he may have culled from Henny Youngman’s repertoire.

Today, he’s more like a monk than anything else. He is very very focused on the task at hand, making a record. The atmosphere in the studio itself is like an ashram. That deep, meditative vibe is present.

I assume my position as fly on the wall in the control room, where Lucille is sitting at the control panel with session engineer Troy Halderson. As we talk, Sonny is at the piano, working out chords, writing something. Lucille tells me that on the day of recording, Sonny doesn’t talk very much at home. He’s thinking a lot, about the music. On a yellow pad, he’s written the names of four tunes he plans on recording, “Mother Nature’s Blues,” “Echo-Side Blue,” “Change Partners,” and “Island Lady.” Irving Berlin wrote “Change Partners.” The others are originals. He recorded “Island Lady” once before, in 1976 on “The Way I Feel.”

I look at that title, “Echo-Side Blue.” Some sort of play on words? Then I realize what he meant. Ecocide. He turned it around a bit. That and “Mother Nature’s Blues” suggest a possible environmental theme. In conversations over the last five years, he’s repeatedly expressed concern about these issues.

As Idris Muhammad and Bob Cranshaw set up, Lucille explains that they just want to see what they can get from today’s session. “We may get nothing, we may get a lot,” she offers. Anything is possible. Sessions are limited to four hours, otherwise Sonny feels he loses his intensity. Too many hours in the studio and he feels spread too thin.

Twenty-eight minutes before the session is scheduled to begin, he’s still at the piano, still in deep, intense concentration, obviously enhanced by years of meditation and yoga. The daily practice of yoga and meditation gives one great inner strength, the kind of strength necessary for a man who’s constantly challenging himself creatively.

Bob Cranshaw, who goes all the back to 1959 with Sonny, comes to the control room and we exchange e-mail addresses. After the rehearsals, he says, he’s enthusiastic about the session, especially the new ballad, “Echo-Side Blue.”

Stephen Scott arrives and Idris is ready. The group breaks into a blues and then runs down each tune. Just as things are about to take off, there’s a problem with Sonny’s wireless headphone. When it’s resolved, the lights are lowered, Sonny blows a few runs and they start again. Time to go to work. The first tune is “Echo-Side Blue” and it’s simply gorgeous. No mistaking that saxophone. The tune has some great twists and turns and Rollins fills them with glittering embellishments. After the take, he asks to hear it back and then goes for two more complete takes. His playing is anything but tentative yet I sense a certain apprehension in his demeanor once he stops playing. In between takes he keeps to himself. There’s a mini-studio off the main room and he goes in there and plays while the band listens to one of the takes. The little room reminds me of the isolation booth used on the television program, The $64,000 Question, or maybe the backstage at the Jerry Springer Show, although I’m sure that’s someplace I’ll never be.

The next tune is “Mother Nature’s Blues,” an uptempo romp suited for stretching out and that’s just what he does. It’s chorus after chorus of spontaneous composition. In terms of impromptu inventiveness, Sonny has few peers. Every solo is a journey, a ride that’s always enjoyable and sometimes, truly cosmic. His improvisations are unpredictable, everything from quotes taken from the most unlikely sources to profound harmonic explorations.

During the second take, he stops and makes a change in the arrangement. Now, Scott begins the song on solo piano. Sonny plays the third take sitting down. It’s almost as if something is brewing. Then he stops again. He needs to hear Cranshaw’s bass on his headphones. “Without the bass in a song like this,” he says, “I’m lost.”

On the fourth take, he’s really warmed up and his solo builds to a dramatic peak. They may have worked out the compositions but there’s nothing formulaic about his playing. Sonny is totally spontaneous, truly in the moment. Each take is unique, each solo a totally different composition. Idris has great ears and picks up on what Sonny does and they start to jell. It’s happening now.

During the next break, Cranshaw is back in the control room. Several other visitors pass through. Freddy Cole is recording downstairs and Todd Barkan, who’s producing the session, stops by to share a laugh with Sonny. I ask Cranshaw about Sonny’s studio countenance and he acknowledges that the saxophonist has never been terribly comfortable in the studio yet he perseveres.

Only time for one more today, Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners.” Back in the studio, Sonny gets right into it. He’s very much at home playing standards. Later he tells me, “I relate to standards and I think other people do as well. I like standards a lot…they’re really good vehicles and for jazz musicians to play this music has been very fortuitous for them and for the composers. I heard a composer on the radio say that the jazz musicians are the real interpreters of the standards, they’re the ones who really keep the songs alive and give them added dimension.”

On the first take, I note Scott’s exquisite comping. In 1986, 18-year-old Stephen Scott won the “Young Talent Award” from the National Association Of Jazz Educators and in the past 12 years, he has developed into a captivating soloist and superb accompanist. Muhammad’s drums are also noteworthy here. He keeps time without being overbearing. A model of economy, he plays just what’s necessary, nothing more, nothing less.

After the take, Sonny mentions that he “may be getting to the point,” and Lucille suggests a rest. But he continues and on the next take, he seems even more relaxed and flowing. One more take and that’s it for the day, he’s spent. In a conversation several days later, he explains that he has yet to listen to the session’s tape but questions the results. “We rehearsed a little bit but that was really my first foray into playing in some time. We stopped working at the end of October and I was really out of shape. I like to record when I’ve been working so that my chops are really up. So this was what I like to call a preliminary session. If we got anything useable, that’s good. If not, that’s OK too.”

For further insight, I contact Orrin Keepnews, who produced a number of sessions for Sonny on both Riverside and Milestone. “I spent a number of years in different settings working with Sonny,” Keepnews explains. “For various legitimate reasons, Sonny finds it physically, emotionally and musically difficult to work under recording circumstances, he always has. With Sonny, I feel it’s a matter of the tremendous demands he places upon himself, of looking for if not perfection, making demands on himself for a form of excellence and then being very critical of himself and not believing he’s achieved it.”

As an artist, Sonny Rollins is not alone in his quest for perfection in the studio. Keepnews reveals that both Bill Evans and Wes Montgomery regularly voiced similar concerns: “There’s a kind of negative feeling of when you have done it, this is it, this is your once in a lifetime interpretation of this particular piece of music and that’s the way it’s going to be permanently inscribed on tablets of stone or vinyl or whatever they make CDs out of today. That permanence can be a little inhibiting as well. The artist thinks, this is the way my solo on this tune is going to sound to anybody who buys this record over the course of the next 100 years. As brilliant an improviser as Sonny is, I think he finds this emotionally difficult to accept. I don’t think he intellectualizes any of what I’m saying, I don’t think it’s conscious or deliberate, it’s just part of the situation as he lives it.”

Keepnews also has some words of caution for me: “What you were witnessing was incredibly irrelevant. What he was engaged in doing were various steps in the creation of a record. Eventually, there will be editing, mixing and then a final record presented to the public as a completed artifact, and that’s really all that matters. The public has no need to be told, no right to be told, no healthy interest in being told, all the sweat that went into it. How many takes there were, how hard it was to do, what the emotional attitude in the studio was, that is not relevant. What is relevant is what comes out in the end because frankly, the skills involved in creating the final product are as important as anything else in the process and it is the final product is all that the public has any right to be involved with. That’s what you pay your money for when you buy the final record, not all the sweat and blood that goes into the creation of it.”

Curious about how the other participants view the situation, I call Stephen Scott who reveals that he’s also “very uncomfortable in the studio. It’s hard because it’s like stopping artistry in motion, like trapping a wild animal or a rare butterfly and putting it in a box so you can enjoy it. It’s particularly unnatural for an artist who’s used to interacting with an audience and with people directly, feeding off their energy and that’s what Sonny does when he plays. He feeds off the energy of the people. Somehow, he connects with the emotions from an audience and intuitively, figures out exactly what it is that they want and he provides that for them. That’s the sign of a great entertainer, a great artist. To try and do that in the studio when all you have in front of you is a steel microphone, it can be difficult.” Scott has been working with Rollins for over two years and notes that “the thing about Sonny, his standard is so high that even on what he considers a bad night, he’ll still play some incredible stuff, incredible ideas, harmonically and rhythmically. There’s always something there, he’s always creating magic.”

Seven weeks later, Rollins returns to the studio for a second session. The personnel includes Scott and Cranshaw again, but also his working band for the year, trombonist Clifton Anderson, percussionist Victor See Yuen, and a new drummer, Perry Wilson. In the control room, Lucille introduces me to Wilson, a jovial, warm man in his 30s and he is absolutely buzzing with enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, playing with Sonny is “the highlight of my life, absolutely.” When asked about his credentials, Wilson reports he’s played with Stanley Clarke and Patrice Rushen, as well as the Four Tops and the Temptations. During the rehearsals, he adds, “I had an out of body experience. I felt I was on the ceiling, watching the band play.”

Once again, Sonny has written the agenda for today’s session on a yellow pad. Three tunes. “Island Lady,” Global Warming,” and “Clear-cut Boogie.” My suspicions about an environmental theme to this recording are obviously on target. Lucille reveals that after listening to the tapes from the last session, there are good takes and that if things go well today, they’ll go out to Fantasy’s Berkeley studio to mix and master the recording for a late spring release.

From note one, it’s obvious that Sonny is much more relaxed today. The addition of a percussionist as well as the members of his working band agrees with him. The music flows easier this time.

The first thing they play is “Global Warming,” a reworking of “Kilauea,” which he recorded on Sunny Days, Starry Nights in 1984. The band lays down a powerful, organic West Indian groove and Sonny cuts loose, moving about the studio, thanks to his clip-on mike. After the take, he makes a few changes, carefully explaining to each musician exactly what he wants. They do a number of takes, then take a break. The music is definitely happening yet Sonny still has that look of great concern. Obviously, that will never change. What true artist is ever satisfied? I notice engineer Troy Halderson’s t-shirt: “The Four Food Groups of Recording: Caffeine, Nicotine, Sugar and Grease.” That certainly has the ring of truth but for Sonny Rollins, there’s a driving force behind his creativity that goes beyond any earthly succor. Ben Hecht once said, “Writing is easy. Just open a vein.”

“Island Lady” is up next. Sonny played and recorded this tune back in the ’70s and started playing it again at a concert in Antibes last year. Later, he tells me that “it seemed like something that would lend itself to the current personnel. I write for the guys in the band in that particular time and adjust my repertoire accordingly, taking out tunes that some guys don’t play as well as other tunes. Everybody can’t play everything at an equal level. Some guys can play a waltz, some guys can play straightahead. ‘Island Lady’ came back to me as a result of the particular group I had at the time”

Everyone seems to catch fire on this one. I note the fluidity of Anderson’s trombone. Anderson has been working with Rollins for fifteen years. “I’ve always liked playing with a trombone,” Rollins explains. “When Clifton came up with me, he was pretty young and he hadn’t been around much, he was still in his formative years. Now he’s grown quite a bit in his concept and execution and musicianship to where he’s considered to be one of the top men around. Clifton’s able to blend with me, he knows how I attack things, and really helps in ensemble work. He’s also developed quite a bit as a soloist.”

I lose track of the number of takes on “Island Lady” but I’m certain that later on, they’ll find one that’s worthy of release. Although it’s obvious today’s session will be extended, they jump right into “Clear-cut Boogie,” an easy going shuffle. The tune has an expansive feel, it’s laid back but has a certain urgency. Cranshaw really jumps on this groove and although the session is ebbing, after four hours, Sonny’s playing is still energetic and ingenious.

Yet given the opinionated nature of jazz listeners, there will probably be considerable debate about this music. I for one, grow weary of the naysayers and cynics who constantly compare and contrast the work of an artist. The Greek chorus of if only he had done it this way, or played it with so and so, or why doesn’t he play like this anymore.

Orrin Keepnews shares my concern and has an answer: “One thing that ticks me off is that there are people who give Sonny a hard time because he doesn’t sound the way he sounded in 1957, and there’s one good reason he doesn’t sound that way. He doesn’t want to. It’s physically and aesthetically impossible and not particularly desirable…to expect an older musician to take himself back and act like he did in an older period is nonsense. The people who criticize Sonny or anybody else with a history on that basis are just going in the wrong direction, Sonny is not going to play like he played with Max Roach, it’s not going to happen again and thank God, what would be the purpose of that.”

The next day, in response to a question about the whirlwind of critical discourse that occasionally envelops him, Rollins explains that “As a performer, this is part of what I have to live with…I have to take my lumps…Sure there are going to be people who like something else better than others but at this point, I’m not too worried about that. It’s not a matter of life and death. It might have been a long long time ago. Back in the ’60s maybe, when I came back from the bridge, and people were saying, we liked the stuff before you went to the bridge. Why did you go on the bridge anyway? You might as well have stayed out here, something like that. But at this point, almost 40 years later, that kind of comparison is not as critical to me. I’m really my harshest critic.”

Discussing the post session process, he reveals that going over the music to find suitable takes can be “an excruciating proposition. Being a jazz musician is hard because you’re composing in the moment yet a recording lasts forever. When you play, you do it for the moment and then it’s gone. But when you record, now they’re taking this thing that might be great at the moment and putting it down for everybody to listen to and scrutinize. The musicians themselves can’t be on both sides of the couch so to speak. You can’t be a guy that’s playing and at the same time, a guy that’s listening and analyzing what you’re doing. Usually you’re one or the other. I’d rather play and I don’t want to hear about what I did, I don’t want to listen to it again.”

As for the recording’s environmental theme, he hopes that the music “is up to the title. I feel very strongly about the crisis mankind now faces. In a way, it’s crystallized in the environmental issues that we face. There are a lot of other things, a lot of other social and spiritual issues but they all play into the environmental issue and this is something I want to make a statement about.”

Is he optimistic about the future? “Yes,” he answers, “I think it can be resolved if people begin to face the gravity of it. We live in a world that is geared to people not facing up to things, to getting away from things. I think it can be resolved when people face up to it and get together and organize around this issue. We don’t have very much time. The rate of the earth, of our habitat being destroyed is at an amazing pace. We musicians and everybody else who thinks about it has to try and say something. The title ‘Clear-cut Boogie,’ for example comes from the way that wood is being cut down, the clear-cutting of our forests.

“I want to make my statement. I feel that jazz music has to be more than a parlor music or more than a concert music where you go and enjoy the artistry of musicians from the comfort of the seat in an auditorium or the seat in a nightclub. Jazz has always had a social message to it and this is a vital part of jazz. What has made the music relevant, besides the beauty of the thing itself, is that it has prospered because its had to fight many things. As you know, I did the ‘Freedom Suite’ a long time ago and I still think about things like this. This recording is my ‘Freedom Suite’ of ’98, about the environment. Jazz has to have an edge to it. It can’t be easy, it shouldn’t be easy and commercial and part of the mainstream. It’s going to lose everything about it if it gets too comfortable for people to listen to. Sometimes it seems as if everybody just wants to sit back and have some beers and go to a nice nightclub and watch tv and in the meantime, the whole planet is being clear-cut, which means the air is all messed up. The trees are the lungs to the planet, so there’s something wrong here. I think it’s important for artists of all kinds to deal with these issues. This recording is my contribution.”

Gearbox: Sonny Rollins plays a Selmer Mark VI tenor, uses a Berg-Larsen 130/2 mouthpiece, Fred Hemke medium reeds and a Shure condenser microphone.

Author’s Note: I dedicate this article to the memory of Walter Bishop, Jr., who died on January 24th. Walter and Sonny were teenage be-boppers together in Harlem during the ’40s. Bish, the subject of my first published article in 1977, was a close friend. He will be missed. Originally Published