The Abstract Expressionist

Photo: John Abbott/Courtesy of Abrams (from the book "Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins"

Sonny Rollins, saxophone colossus, turns 80 on September 7. You wouldn’t know it to see him standing at the front of the bandstand, one of the last of the jazz legends, unleashing his soul through the frantic force of brash and sinuous improvisations, much as expressionist painters once attacked their canvases with color. On his best nights, Rollins rides the rhythm for chorus after chorus, no two alike, exploring every avenue that a chord or melody opens up. Then, just as you think he’s exhausted all possibilities, he darts into some uncharted alley and invents a whole new way of phrasing music—all the while never losing his grip on the pulse, shape, or swing of the song.

“I’m constantly thinking about music, all day long,” says Rollins, who lives upstate in the woods of Columbia County. “I always have my mind-door open. I’m alert to everything that might turn into a song. I’m wrestling with a song at the moment.” He practices each day for at least two hours. “I play songs, exercises, patterns, everything. You shouldn’t put any limits on what you can do. Music is an open-ended thing.” Often, he picks up the horn a few times more during the day, to work out an idea that’s churning in his head. “I had my horn in my mouth just now,” he says. “I put it down to answer the phone.”

Rollins recorded his first albums in 1949, when he wasn’t quite 19, as a sideman to Bud Powell and J. J. Johnson, then went on to play with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, and Clifford Brown before forming his own now-legendary bands. By the mid-fifties, he was widely heralded as the top tenor saxophonist alongside John Coltrane, and after Trane died a decade later, he towered unchallenged, as (despite the occasional lapses and sabbaticals) he has ever since.

And yet Rollins is almost absurdly self-deprecating. “I’m a stern critic. Any serious real artist doesn’t have a high opinion of his own work,” he says. “I feel that I’m just learning.” He famously finds it excruciating to listen to his recordings, bemoaning passages he thinks he could have played better. Asked if he’s liked any of his performances lately, he speaks well of a concert this past July at a jazz festival in Norway. “I was just playing more fluently, I was able to connect some of my ideas,” he says, at once tempering that appraisal: “My ideas were not 100 percent. But it was encouraging.”

One source of his encouragement may be a new, stripped-down band—Russell Malone on guitar, Kobie Watkins on drums, and Sammy Figueroa on percussion, in addition to his longtime bassist, Bob Cranshaw. There’s no chord-heavy pianist and, above all, no second horn player, meaning more time for Rollins to build his solos. “I feel that I have a good band now,” he says, “maybe better than bands I’ve had in the past.”

Rollins will celebrate his eight decades on September 10 with a show at the Beacon Theatre, which is slated to include some old sparring partners, like guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Christian McBride, plus a few surprise guests. Will it be as great as the Norway show? “This is my fervent goal,” he says. “That’s my task. I hope I’ve gotten to the point where I can make sure it’s not a big drag, to me or anybody else.” For Sonny Rollins, words of extraordinarily great expectations.

Sonny Rollins @80
September 10.
Beacon Theatre.

The Abstract Expressionist