Throughout the seven decades Sonny Rollins has been recording and performing, his playing has always contained a certain poetic urgency. From his work in the early 1950s with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk to his most recent album, Sonny, Please, Sonny has worked tirelessly to create art that grabs listeners and awakens their aesthetic sensibility.
I love Sonny's art because it's simultaneously strong and delicate—no matter the decade. When Sonny plays, you initially hear a robust, commanding sound. But as you listen to what he's saying musically, you hear a warming infusion that beckons and makes his art accessible. As Sonny told me earlier this week, he is never happy unless his playing moves listeners. And like any great artist, Sonny is the ultimate judge of whether that mission has been accomplished—not audience applause or CD sales.
Today, in Part 4 of our conversation, Sonny talks about the challenges of performing live, why he decided not to release a CD of his 2007 Carnegie Hall concert, and why it's tough to be a producer on a Sonny Rollins recording session:
JazzWax: Is performing terrifying?
Sonny Rollins: Well, I don’t know about terrifying…
JW: Does an artist ever get over the anxiety of being emotionally naked in front of judgmental strangers?
SR: [Laughs] Well, no, I suppose not. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say “terrifying.” The fact that you’re doing what you’re doing on stage—the way you just described it, "naked in front of people"—that edgy quality is always there. I don’t care how long you’ve been playing. You have to face that feeling every time. So yeah, a certain tension is always there when you go out on the stage, before you start. But I’m loathe to call it terrifying. That might be a little overstated.
JW: What would you call it?
SR: There’s always the excitement of going out on stage. That’s part of it, and that’s probably what makes performing special. The anxiety gives it a lot of extra juices, and when those juices flow, that’s all part of the creative process and result.
JW: When you were at Carnegie Hall last year, what did you think of the recording? Is it coming out?
SR: No, it’s not coming out. I didn’t like the recording after I heard it, so I’m not going to put that out.
JW: Was it the sound of the recording or the playing?
SR: I didn’t really feel that I was playing up to a level that I wanted, as a 50th anniversary recording. So I didn’t think it was ready to be put out, you know. I’ll be putting out other records.
JW: Do you know what material you'll be recording?
SR: No, of course not. I'm just starting to think about things. It will probably be with my band. [Sonny's web site this week announced that a DVD of a 2006 French concert will be released soon.]
JW: It must be great to have that kind of control over your art.
SR: I know, it is. But it hasn’t been easy to get to this point. In my case, it’s been a little bit easier because I’ve been signed to various record companies over the years. To sign me, each has had to sort of give me my head. Because what I do is so singular, and they really had to go by what I said. It’s very hard to be an A&R man on a Sonny Rollins date.
JW: So the people who have been A&R men on your dates, like Orrin Keepnews...
SR: ...George Avakian, Bob Thiele...
JW: They understood soon enough to sit back and let Sonny Rollins do his thing?
SR: More or less, yeah. I would say that would be proper to say that.
JW: In 1981 you recorded with the Rolling Stones, on the album Tattoo You. Did they appreciate your playing?
SR: I have no idea. I know the record was very successful. It's a funny story. I heard myself on the album by accident. I was shopping near my home. They play a lot of music over the sound system in the shopping malls, you know. I was walking through there and heard this record with a sax player. It caught my ear and I wondered who was playing, it sounded so familiar. All of a sudden I realized—that’s me! It was a song from that record.
JW: Do people recognize you and come up to you in stores?
SR: Occasionally. I try to be pretty low-key. I’ve had a lot of publicity in local papers. So a lot of people got to see me and know what I look like.
JW: Do kids come up to you?
SR: No, mostly adults.
JW: What gives you the most satisfaction today?
SR: I hope I've been able to pass along a tradition. It's nice to know that I’ve been successful to some degree. But if I couldn’t give anything to people, I wouldn’t just enjoy playing for myself. Giving something and having someone get joy from my work is the creative circle coming around to completion.
JazzWax tracks: Sonny's most recent CD is Sonny, Please, a combination of original works and standards recorded at the end of 2005 and beginning of 2006. The title track is a soulful exploration with touches of free form playing. The airy Noel Coward waltz, Someday I'll Find You is next, followed by a funky original, Nishi. Sonny digs in on the ballad Stairway to the Stars and offers up a rollicking medium-tempo line on Remembering Tommy. Serenade is a Italian love song taken in waltz time, and the album closes with another original, Park Place Parade, which has a joyous Caribbean beat and flavor.
Rather than go into too much depth on Sonny's many recordings, let me just provide you with 10 of my favorite Sonny Rollins tracks (all are in print as CDs and available at iTunes)...
- More Than You Know (from Moving Out/1954)
- Paradox (Worktime/1955)
- Paul's Pal (Tenor Madness/1956)
- Reflections (Sonny Rollins Vol. 2/1957)
- What Is There to Say (The Sound of Sonny/1957)
- Namely You (Newk's Time/1957)
- I'm an Old Cowhand (Way Out West/1957)
- Night in Tunisia (night take, A Night at the Village Vanguard/1957)
- If Ever I Would Leave You (What's New?/1962)
- He's Younger Than You (Alfie/1966)
As for the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You, Sonny appears on Slave, Waiting on a Friend and Neighbours. As you'll hear, Sonny's solos are captivating and add a new dimension to the rock band's gritty blues.