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Sons of Miles
SONNY ROLLINS : Saxophone Colossus
by Mike Zwerin
30 July 1998


PERUGIA, Italy - Sonny Rollins held or, it sometimes seemed, was held by a press conference during the Umbria Jazz Festival. No fan of the conferential format, he had obviously resolved to be patient with impertinent questions.

Asked how he feels about the growing number of jazz festivals, he answered with the evident: ''They are putting a lot of musicians to work. This is a good thing.''

Rollins was one of the monsters, a quick-witted player with big ears and sturdy roots. More than a spinner of tales, he was an inventor of improvisational language. His robust sound is an immediately recognizable franchise. History, however, has at least temporarily passed him by. You can sense an underlying bitterness along with his considerable intelligence and deep-felt spirituality (he studied in India and Japan for three years).

He adjusted his dark glasses, reflected for a beat, and added: ''We try and make it easier for our children so they won't have to pay the dues we did. This may hurt them in the long run. It has occurred to me that maybe young people are not suffering enough. Don't get me wrong, I'm just saying you reap what you sow. There are so many distractions - Internet, video games, CD-ROM, TV. It's become easier to escape responsibility. As you may have guessed, I'm an anti-technology person.'' He drained a glass of water and said: ''So shoot me.''

He lives with his wife on an isolated farm in upstate New York. Most days he retires to his studio to practice, compose and meditate while she handles the business and the necessities of life. He limits his appearances; this concert in Perugia was rather an event. He and his wife remained mostly in their hotel room, though, relying on room service. From what he said and the way he said it, it would seem that he is more concerned with being in touch with himself than with contemporary music or events.

''Too self-critical'' to listen to his own albums, in recent years he hasn't listened to much music by others either: ''There's so much music in my mind, there's no room for more. I'm trying to create my own music.''

Asked about whether he often thinks about death, the 65-year-old ''Saxophone Colossus'' said he believes in reincarnation. He is trying to live a better life this time around. ''Death is easy,'' he said. ''Living is hard.''

While on the subject, he cited the fabled 1950s quartet with Max Roach, Clifford Brown and Richie Powell (Bud's brother) and said he had been ''terribly shattered'' when Richie Powell and Brown were killed in a car crash. He has summoned Brown's spirit for inspiration ever since. In high school he rehearsed with Thelonious Monk after class, and he played with Miles Davis while still in his teens. He summons their spirits too.

''I think about these people all the time. Since I was blessed to have played with them, and since I am one of the few players from that era remaining, I feel a responsibility to keep my music on as high a level as possible in their honor. So I have an added burden. I must represent them as well as myself.''

''Every now and then,'' he said, he dreams about John Coltrane, which is interesting because, while not exactly competitors, they were rivals. Saxophonists felt somehow obliged to make a choice between them, to sound like one or the other; like the choice between Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young in the '30s.

Folklore has it that Lester ''defeated'' Hawkins in a cutting contest during a jam session in Kansas City. True or not, after that Lester became the prime influence on the following generations (Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, Branford Marsalis). One of the few successors to have successfully tamed and knit Hawkins's full tone, breathy vibrato and songlike phrases into bebop, Rollins suffered a similar ''defeat'' after recording the classic ''Tenor Madness'' with Coltrane in 1956 (their only track together). Of course all of this is oversimplified. But still.

Trane's ''sheets of sound'' were more modern, free-wheeling and seductive. Rollins continued to develop, restructure and recapitulate themes - very 19th century and very hard to do, like some sort of improvised sonata form. At the same time, as his luck would have it, there was a general decline of melody in popular music. Rock songs were often mere riffs; Miles Davis pared melodies down to three or four notes; melody played no part whatsoever in rap. Sound-bit listeners did not have the patience to wait for melody to recapitulate.

Sonny Rollins

And somewhere along the line, Rollins lost his consistency. Now he'll do what Sonny Rollins used to do, but often overdo it. His melodic fragments can be more fragmented then melodic. Still capable of producing goose-bumps, he can no longer be relied on for it. On stage in Umbria, for example, he took the audience on a tour of Calypso hell in the eye of a hurricane of self-parody on his hit ''St. Thomas'' before reaching full prime-time stride on ''Long Ago And Far Away.''

Meanwhile, back at the conference. Instead of replying ''none of your business,'' he decided to deal with a question about his political preferences; about Bob Dole passing up the opportunity to address the NAACP:

''The problem is beyond racism. It's consumerism. We are destroying our planet to acquire more material goods. Racism is part of this - more goods for me, less for you. And as a black person, racism affects me personally. But consumerism affects my descendents and the entire planet.

''Politicians are only concerned with immediate growth and profit. I don't think I'll vote this year. This business about the lesser of two evils is out of date. I don't want to vote for the evil of two lessers. I'll make my contribution with music. I think it is possible for jazz to reach people on a deeper level than entertainment. We should work to make it more than merely diversionary.''

He finally snapped in response to a question about O.J. Simpson: ''What does that have to do with anything?''


Photo: Sonny Rollins
Credit: Christian Rose

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