The onliest Sonny

By JON GARELICK  |  April 15, 2010
READ: "Two for the road: Dave Holland and Tomasz Stanko come to town"
“Over the many years I’ve been performing, it’s been such a big issue with me: ‘Gee, did I play good? Did I sound good?’ ” Now, he says, he’s satisfied to reach a standard that he feels is worthy of his audience, even if he’d like to go beyond that. “At one time in my career, I didn’t have a gauge of what that standard was, and if I felt blue, I was really blue after a show. That was a big thing for me for a while. Now I’ve sort of evened that out to where I can give a standard performance and not be ready to kill myself when I get off the stage.”

To that end, he continues to practice rigorously. “I’m still as involved as I was when I was 25 years old. Maybe more so. Because then things came to me maybe easier without my realizing it.” These days, when he’s not on the road, he practices about two hours a day. But he remembers during that first sabbatical, beginning in 1959, when he would spend time practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge. “I used to practice all day and then go back up there at night. I have practiced as much as 13, 14 hours a day a lot of times. It comes easily to me — practicing — because I love playing.”

His material these days tends to funk and calypsos and old songs that you wouldn’t necessarily call standards because not many people play them — like Frank Loesser & Alfred Newman’s “The Moon of Manakoora,” from This Is What I Do (2000), which he remembered Dorothy Lamour singing in The Hurricane, a 1937 John Ford movie that his mother took him to when he was about nine. A song appeals to Rollins because “it strikes some kind of a familiar chord someplace in my psyche.” Jazz musicians generally are attracted to songs with chords that offer good opportunities for improvisation, but Rollins says, “Usually, if I like a song, the first thing that is going to attract me is the melody. Which means the harmonic underpinnings, also — it means the whole song. So if I like the song, that automatically means it’s something I can improvise on.”

But sometimes a song he loves stumps him. One was “As Long As There’s Music,” an old Frank Sinatra vehicle by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (from the 1944 Sinatra film Step Lively) that appeared on Rollins set lists as recently as 2008. He begins to sing over the phone and then says, “It’s a beautiful song, but I found it hard to get into a groove soloing on it. Maybe the harmonies didn’t really give me a chance to do what I could do with it. It’s probably my fault for not being a more capable improviser. I don’t want to blame the song at all.”

On WBUR’s On Point recently with host Tom Ashbrook, critic Bob Blumenthal pointed out that when Rollins entered the scene, he set himself apart from other saxophonists with an aggressive rhythmic attack, his sense of the blues, and his humor. Was he conscious of taking a new approach?

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