What sets Sonny Rollins' playing apart from other modern jazz tenor saxophonists is his enormous level of self-confidence, his respect for space, and his unrestrained love of music, melody and life. If you listen carefully to Sonny's solos, you'll also hear a wry sense of humor that flowers beautifully when combined with the intensity and ambition of his creative risk-taking.
Yesterday, in the first installment of my four-part conversation with America's greatest living jazz musician, Sonny reflected on the 1950s, his distinct sound, and his life-long passion for practicing.
Today, in Part 2, Sonny talks about what goes through his mind when he plays, why he has given up listening to recordings of other jazz legends, and what it takes to become a significant jazz artist:
JazzWax: Which musician from your past are you thinking about most when you play?
Sonny Rollins: Well, that’s pretty hard to say because I’m an equal opportunity borrower. I like all of these guys. I mean I take stuff from all of them. So many musicians—Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker and others—have contributed so much. Only now, since Coltrane [pictured] and I are no longer contemporaries, am I able to listen to him and adapt some of his ideas. This wasn't possible back in the late 1950s and 1960s. As you know, there were two schools back then—Sonny and Coltrane. That’s a result of the fans, so both schools had to remain separate. Now I'm able to use some of Coltrane's ideas in my own music.
JW: Do you listen to recordings of other jazz artists?
SR: I don’t listen to records or CDs today. I’ve found it too difficult to listen to any form of recorded music over the last 20 years or so. The exception would be, of course, if I’m at a festival or listening to others play. But in my home, I can’t. I don’t know why. Someone said it’s because I don’t want any more information in my head. Or that I don’t want to unconsciously take anything from anyone else. Both are probably accurate. You have to understand, I already have these artists in my head. If you said to me, “Coleman Hawkins” [pictured], I’ve absorbed enough of his music to automatically be able to drink from the spring of music he left here.
JW: When you put your horn in your mouth to play, what's going through your mind?
SR: When I was a boy practicing the alto sax in my bedroom or in the closet or someplace else in my house, I would sort of do what I do now, which is go into a stream-of-consciousness state [pictured: Sonny at age 15]. This is what I do today when I’m soloing in a concert setting. I go into this neutral mental state. To create, my mind has to be blank. I may think of a few things at the beginning to get started. But when I really get into a solo, my mind is completely blank. You can’t think and play at the same time. It comes too fast.
JW: What comes too fast?
SR: Ideas moving from my mind to my mouth and hands. I’ve tried in the past to think about ideas while practicing with my current band. I might have been at home when an idea came to me and thought, “Gee that would fit real well when I’m improvising on this or that particular song.” But when I take that idea on the stand and try to do it, I can’t. It’s too slow. By the time I think about doing it, the actual moment has passed, and it would sound contrived if I tried.
JW: Thinking about structured ideas actually can trip up the natural creative process?
SR: I think so.
JW: Is it difficult not to think about anything when playing?
SR: As an artist, ideas have to be absorbed on such a subconscious level that you’re not really thinking about them. Anything less is a problem. Any kind of a conscious level of thinking to direct what I’m playing in one way or another, or to do this or do that, completely destroys the purity of the whole endeavor, you know?
JW: But you need to think in advance about the basics—the songs, the key and so on, yes?
SR: Of course. But when you create, when you improvise, there has to be a free flow from your subconscious to your expression. You can't think logically at this point.
JW: Is this part of what's needed to become a great jazz musician?
SR: Well, I’m a little uncomfortable with you calling me great.
JW: Let me put it this way—what it takes to become an artist?
SR: OK, that works. To be an artist, you need a certain amount of natural gift. That’s No. 1. You have to be gifted. Because I know a lot of people I grew up with, all the guys I grew up with—we all wanted to be jazz musicians. Everyone did. That was the cool life. But we all couldn’t do it. Everybody didn’t have certain musical gifts. I had more of a gift, so I could pursue it. So that's one—you have to have the talent and gift for being creative.
JW: What else?
SR: You also have to love what you’re doing. I really love music. When I listened to my idols, I was in another world. Music transported me from this material world to a more spiritual place. If you truly love what you're doing, then you just need a certain amount of industriousness. You have to study and practice and go through some times like that. If you put all of these things together, becoming an artist is possible.
JW: You also have to work with incredibly talented people, yes?
SR: Well, yes, sure. If you have enough talent and you’re committed, working with people who are superior to you always, will improve your playing.
JW: Was "Newk" a nickname you liked?
SR: When you receive a nickname, it’s something of an honor. It shows that your peers have an affection for you. So, yes I liked it. Miles, I think, came up with the name in the early 1950s, because he thought I looked like Don Newcombe [one of the first African-American baseball pitchers who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, pictured].
JW: Alfie is a fantastic recording. How did it come about?
SR: You like it? I'm so glad. I was playing at Ronnie Scott's club in London in early 1965 [right]. I was playing with three other English jazz musicians, and the movie was being made there at the time. While I was at the club, I was asked by director Lewis Gilbert to write sketches [incidental music] for the film. We recorded the sketches for the movie with a small group. For the soundtrack, Oliver [Nelson] arranged a beautiful score for 11 pieces based on my sketches. Oliver fleshed out what I wrote. He was a beautiful arranger.
Tomorrow, Sonny talks about the joys and anxieties of performing, what he hopes listeners hear in his playing, and the CD he plans to release this year instead of his 2007 Carnegie Hall performance, which didn't please him.
JazzWax tracks. Between November 1953 and October 1954, Sonny recorded five breathtaking albums—The Thelonious Monk Quintet, Art Farmer's New Jazz Stars (also known as Early Art), Bags Groove with Miles Davis, Movin' Out and the Sonny Rollins Quartet. Each is essential, especially Early Art—with the tracks Soft Shoe, Confab in Tempo and I'll Take Romance.
Between November 1955 and June 1956, Sonny recorded steadily with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, squeezing in a leadership date (Worktime) and a critical session with fellow tenor giant John Coltrane (Tenor Madness).
Then in late June 1956, Sonny recorded Saxophone Colossus, which firmly established him as a maverick and creator of a new sound. Between October 1956 and March 1958, Sonny recorded a string of stunning albums, each of which is a masterpiece—Rollins Plays for Bird, Tour de Force, Sonny Rollins Vol. 1, the piano-less Way Out West, Sonny Rollins Vol. 2, The Sound of Sonny, Newk's Time, A Night at the Village Vanguard and Freedom Suite.
One of Sonny's most underrated and frequently overlooked albums is Alfie (1966). For reasons that have little to do with the actual music, the album routinely is categorized as some sort of commercial excursion by Sonny rather than the explicit gem and work of art it remains.
The album's opener, Alfie's Theme, is a brash, soulful melody line that serves, in retrospect, as a mature counterpoint to the child-like Swinging London rock scene exemplified at the time by the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Yardbirds. Sonny's ballad, He's Younger Than You Are, is positively gripping. And On Impulse, Sonny's medium-tempo waltz, is deep and reflective.
If you own this album, pull it out and give it a listen. If not, download or buy it. The writing is terrific, and Sonny's ideas and execution are exciting. Listen to On Impulse several times and you will start to hear experimental shades in Sonny's playing that didn't exist previously.
Sonny's playing on Alfie represents a shift in his phrasing and attack. His playing on the album is more studied than his 1950s work for Prestige, Blue Note and Riverside, and it's softer and more wide open than his taut work on The Bridge (1962) from a few years earlier. Alfie features a sound that Sonny would expand and build upon in the years that would follow.
JazzWax history. Sonny's score for Alfie was used in both the UK and American film releases. But for the U.S. version, Paramount Pictures also wanted a pop tune with words. So Burt Bacharach and Hal David were brought in to write a theme song. Cher recorded it, and her version is the one you hear playing over the film credits at the end.
Beatles' discovery Cilla Black recorded Alfie as a single in 1966, but it wasn't until Dionne Warwick's version topped out at #15 in April 1967 that the song become a massive hit. [Pictured, Cilla Black, Patti Boyd and George Harrison at Alfie's London premier in 1966.]
One final note: Bacharach and David won the 1967 Oscar for "Best Music, Original Score," while Sonny Rollins was merely nominated for a "Best Original Score" Grammy. The Grammy winner in that category was Maurice Jarre for Dr. Zhivago.
I'm not sure why one song that appeared at the end of a movie as a commercial afterthought qualified in 1967 as a "Best Music, Original Score" Oscar entry. And I'm not sure why Sonny's bold score for Alfie was ignored. Certainly the Academy of Motion Pictures should consider a special award for Sonny's original Alfie score and the influence he has had on movie scores in general.
JazzWax tracks. To appreciate the swan-like grace of Sonny Rollins' Alfie's Theme, go here to see a clip of the movie with the music playing in the background. Go here to see Sonny playing Alfie's Theme during a 1973 concert.