Sonny Rollins has held the unofficial title of world’s greatest living improviser at least since the early ’70s, following the death of John Coltrane and the second of two extended Rollins sabbaticals from public performance. But the consensus had begun to build years before — through critical praise, audience popularity, and the awe of fellow musicians. “He really did straddle the world like a colossus,” the late soprano-saxophonist Steve Lacy once recalled, echoing a famous Rollins album title.
Rollins — who comes to Symphony Hall this Sunday as part of an 80th-birthday tour — still holds a special place in jazz fans’ hearts. Along with Ornette Coleman, he’s one of the last giants of a generation. And with his huge, gruff tone, rhythmic drive, boundless capacity for invention, and all-around exuberance, he’s still capable of delivering magic.
It’s Rollins’s thirst for that magic of pure invention that still drives him. When I get him on the phone at his home in New Paltz, New York, he laughs heartily at my awkward attempt to complement him on his longevity as a performer. “I’m still looking for that lost chord,” he says. “Something in my dreams. Or at least get closer to it. That’s why I’m still out here, really.”
In a now-famous 1959 article in the Jazz Review, Gunther Schuller analyzed the thematic and structural unity of the solo improvisation on Rollins’s recording of “Blue 7.” The article was said to have depressed Rollins, what with his unconscious, extemporaneous outpouring being treated like exacting compositional deliberation. In fact, like fellow saxophonist Lee Konitz, he’s looking to begin an improvisation with a blank mind. “The ideas, that part of it, is all done in the preparation. Learning the song, the harmonic changes, words, if you want to do that. Then when you get into the performance, you don’t have to think about that.”
At times in concert, Rollins will pound at the melody of a tune, repeating it over and over, until it reveals its secrets and his imagination runs loose. At such moments, he might cut the band for a lengthy cadenza, in which his playing becomes a kind of speaking in tongues — fragments of melodies and quoted phrases from other tunes, burly atonal clusters of notes, all tumbling out in a torrent. Lightning has struck. Rollins has said that an especially long improvisation can sometimes indicate frustration: that lost chord is eluding him. In the past, he’s been notoriously self-critical, and he still doesn’t like to listen to his own playing unless a recording project requires it. How does he assess his own playing these days?