King Sonny

Jazz great Sonny Rollins talks about old songs, speaking in tongues, and 40 years of spiritual intensity

Rollins' affection for these tunes remains. "When I think back about those songs," he said, "they seem to have a certain warm, positive glow about them. It was so strong and so everlasting that they defied time -- and we know that good music is timeless. The sound was such that it reminded me of something beautiful, and I am able to take [off from] that feeling."

How much of this is in the mechanics of the song? "Of course, it's the song with the chord patterns and the melody, all these things; but the song generates a certain beautiful feeling, a heavenly feeling almost. That's what I'm going for. It's something that I've felt and I want to re-create. Hopefully it's something beautiful, something to be re-created and created and re-created. It was created and re-created all over again. I want to share that glow beyond even the music itself. It's just the glow about it."

When Rollins plays a familiar standard like Rodgers & Hart's "Where or When" or Berlin's "Count Your Blessings," this process of creation and re-creation is audible as he works his way through chorus after chorus of the song. Without losing the melody, he, like his old teacher and master Monk, constantly plays with that melody with odd shifts of accent, quirky barks, and surprising inversions. The effect is not unlike what Louis Armstrong sounded like to a listener in 1930 -- slightly wrong, strange, and exquisitely beautiful. As the performance goes on, the impact of the melody -- sometimes clearly present, sometimes hidden, now bold and brazen, then again coy and evasive -- becomes stronger and stronger until it begins to sound virtually archetypal. The song is itself and more itself than it has ever been before.

Rollins is able to bring this incredible authority to bear on a song because of the spiritual intensity of his playing. Music is more than a set of rules, mathematical relationships between notes and chords and scales and keys; it's a spiritual discipline that he approaches through the act of playing the saxophone. "I try not to think. The way I'm getting it, what I'm doing, the less I think about what I'm doing, the more it happens. That's when the music is more on target."

What about his current direction? "Somebody a long time ago described something I was doing and said, 'Sonny was doing this and he was doing that and then he did some playing and then he was speaking in tongues for a while.' I'm trying to get into something akin to speaking in tongues. It's anti-technical in a way, hard to describe, but I'm trying to play something that's more expressive because that's what music is. As far as the method and the style, I'm reaching for something less technical."

Has he attained his original goals? "I still have the hope that jazz and the music that I'm playing, hopefully I can call it jazz, can even reach more people and do things that fight the established norm out here. I still have a little grain of optimism that I can reach more people in a real way, not by trying to jump off the bandstand or turn flips -- in a profound musical way. Every now and then I get a glimpse of that when I'm playing. I'm just trying to get to it more often."

Since the middle 1950s, Rollins has taken time-out periods to recharge his psychic battery. From 1959 to 1961, though he stopped playing commercially, he was constantly seen practicing on New York's Williamsburg Bridge. He studied Rosicrucianism, went to India for half a year in 1968, and took another two-year hiatus from 1969 to 1971. The 1970s and '80s saw him working with more pop-oriented groups, often playing brilliantly, but weighed down by inappropriate side players.

In the last few years, he and his wife, Lucille, have taken over the production tasks on his albums and the music has regained that combination of strength and tenderness so intrinsic to Rollins' nature. His newest album, Sonny Rollins + 3, reveals the same startling song choices ("Mona Lisa"), gorgeous lyricism, and powerful sound that have earned him the title of Saxophone Colossus.

At 67, Rollins still bestrides the narrow jazz world. After half a century as a jazz master he has attained a personal combination of skepticism, innocence, and wisdom that perfectly reflects the complex mix of his music. "I fear that the overtechnologicalized world that we live in is going to play against our getting the message across," he said. "Though perhaps it's going to get so technicalized that people will turn to the more basic things like music."

Does he think the day has passed when, just as Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" did in the 1890s, jazz could shake the world's foundations? "Jazz has been so demonized," he replied. "There was a group of us who hoped that jazz music through its strength and power and honesty and beauty and truthfulness would be able to break down the walls. It hasn't happened and it's made me somewhat disillusioned about the big battle. In the meantime I still have to hope that maybe I can win some little battles and some fans along the way or make some people happy."

Sonny Rollins plays as part of the 15th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival on Thursday, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall, 401 Van Ness (at Hayes). Tickets are $18-48; call 788-7353.

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