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Old folks' music. An antique museum piece. A bleak and forgotten cause. All stereotypes to describe the American-born and -bred art form known as jazz.
By these standards, the music created by 76-year-old jazz legend Sonny Rollins belongs locked in a climate-controlled room along with Renaissance paintings, 17th-century novels, and dinosaur bones. That is, unless you are a senior citizen who still remembers those good ol' sounds, daddy-o.
But even today, the crafty tenor saxophone veteran who has gigged with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane is still edgy and important to contemporary musicians. From creative improvisers in the States to DJs in Sweden, countless artists around the world remain inspired by his rollicking improvisations. "Jazz is a vital music," Rollins tells New Times by phone from his home in Germantown, New York. "It has its ups and downs, but it will always be part of society. It has been around for a long time and has definitely earned its stripes."
Like jazz, Rollins has earned his stripes, too; he's been through the wringer both musically and personally. During the '50s, he spent time in the slammer on an armed robbery charge and struggled with an addiction to heroin. In 1959 and again in the early '70s, he embarked on solitary sabbaticals to work through self-perceived playing limitations.
And there were the events of 9/11, in which he heard the collapse of the World Trade Center from his Manhattan apartment, located just six blocks away from the disaster area. Deeply shaken by the calamity, he reluctantly traveled to Boston four days later and channeled his battered emotions into what is arguably his finest album of the decade, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert(2005). Originally a bootleg recording, the album features Rollins blowing the roof off Berklee College and melding the tragedy into passionate melodies.
But the biggest challenge of Rollins' life occurred in 2004, when his manager and wife, Lucile Rollins, passed away. The tremendous personal loss has also affected him business-wise, as he is learning to deal with many administrative responsibilities for the first time. Because of the new commitments, "my practice time is limited to about two hours a day," he says.
Through all of the adversity, one thing remains for the elder statesman: his fiery chops expressed in mind-altering flights of ingenious sound expressions. Throughout his career, jazz experts have claimed that his live, creative improvisations are so energetic and mind-blowing that they truly can't be captured within the restricted confines of a recording studio. Rollins agrees to a certain point.
"The studio recording is really an artificial atmosphere for artistic production, but to be a true artist, you have to be able to record. It's a clinical affair in there and a bit of an inhibited process. It's more of an exhilarating experience to play live, and there's definitely an interaction," Rollins says. "The players get a lot back from the audience, and their reactions and enthusiasm always add something and reaches us on stage. Successful artists can transport that into a recording studio."
Earlier this year, Rollins released his first studio effort since 2001, Sonny, Please, on his newly formed Doxy label. "It was a propitious time to begin my own label, especially since so many people are going in that direction," Rollins says. The album, which is available through his Web site (www.sonnyrollins.com) and will see larger distribution through Universal in January 2007, features stretched-out solos and boundary-pushing musicianship with a sextet that burned up bandstands during a 2005 Japanese tour. Original compositions such as the groove-oriented title track and the up-tempo "Nishi" show Rollins creating fluent textures through lower and middle register horn exploration, augmented by colorful drum, electric guitar and percussion accompaniment.
Expressing himself, either with growling sax licks or through matter-of-fact conversation, has never been a problem for Rollins. Whether he's discussing the shape of jazz today ("It's not the music I worry about, it's society that concerns me"); the use of music in advertising ("Jazz is fresh and improvisatory . . . it's nothing like the loud guitar rock used as the background music on commercials"); or the differences between European and American audiences ("Europe is a more congenial place to perform your art . . . the U.S. doesn't appreciate music as music because it has to be about selling, and the mentality here is the need to always have something new"), the old master dishes innumerable points of wisdom.
Rollins earned a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2004, and in honor of a recent Minnesota appearance, the city of Minneapolis christened October 31, 2006, as "Sonny Rollins Day." Not bad for a man who is mentioned alongside Coleman Hawkins, Wayne Shorter, and master Coltrane as the all-time greatest tenor saxophone players.
Rollins last played in Arizona more than a decade ago, so his upcoming Valley appearance is a rare treat. And though we can't predict the concert's impact on the crowd, Rollins offers an iconic statement concerning the essence of the music he's been mastering for six decades and counting.
"When you go to a jazz show, there's young people, old people, middle-aged people, blacks, whites, Asians, everything. It's not like you won't find the different mixes of race at a hip-hop show, but you won't find a wide spectrum age-wise. This is what jazz is. It's genuine, real, and it's not used to sell ice cream or luxury cars or something."