Sonny, Please (Doxy Records)
Released November 6, 2006
Grammy Nominee for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group 2007
Sonny Rollins apologises for not having answered the phone when I called earlier. The legendary 76-year-old saxophonist, who lives alone in rural upstate New York, explains he was shovelling snow that had blocked his front door after the worst snowstorm in the area for decades. As Rollins consents to be interviewed about as rarely as catastrophic ice storms occur, I tell him I’m happy to talk to him at all.
Rollins has been described by the American jazz critic Stanley Crouch as “one of the brightest lights in the history of the music… Like Armstrong, he is jazz.” After a lifetime of classic albums and awe-inspiring live performances featuring his distinctively pure, deep tones, Rollins continues to be showered with awards: last year he won a Grammy and was inducted into the Academy of Achievement at an event hosted by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.
Over the years, he has done everything from composing music for the film Alfie to playing with the Rolling Stones on their album Tattoo You. But, as he says, “jazz is the hardest art form in a way because you have to be new every night”.
And he continues to be new. His latest venture is to launch his own record label, Doxy (this being the name of a famous Rollins composition he recorded with Miles Davis in 1954).
“My wife, Lucille, used to run all the business side of things,” he says, “and, since she passed on a couple of years ago, and my contract with my label was about to expire [after 34 years], I realised I had to make the leap.”
For someone who claims to be anti-technology, he’s managed to enter the world of downloads, websites, MySpace and blogging with aplomb.
“Though, to be honest, I prefer to stay at home woodshedding [a jazz phrase which means practising on your own]. I still manage at least two hours a day; it used to be 10.”
The first release on the label is a polished studio album called Sonny, Please. This was the phrase, says Rollins, that Lucille, used to say to him all the time. He laughs. “The album is a tribute to her. She’s still part of everything I do.”
The disc includes his usual eclectic mix of music, ranging from the Noël Coward song Someday I’ll Find You to themes from long-forgotten radio shows from the 1930s.
There are also some new compositions, such as Nishi, dedicated to a Japanese friend (“I’ve been at least 20 times to Japan; they really seem to get the music”) and Park Palace Parade, named after a long-defunct Spanish Harlem dance hall where he used to go as a child: “Many famous calypso artists used to appear there.”
He says he intends to release some archive live recordings on his label, something which is likely to gladden the heart of fans and critics.
Many of them feel that Rollins, though he has made numerous classic albums, is consummately a live performer.
The American jazz critic Gary Giddens calls him “a provocatively enigmatic man – there always seem to be two Sonny Rollins, the recording artist and the studio artist”.
One of Rollins’s most intense fans is Carl Smith, who has a collection of hundreds of high-quality bootlegs going back to 1949.
“Many of these performances are extraordinary,” says Giddens.
“I played some of them for sceptical friends, whose jaws just hit the ground. When listening you can’t miss the fact that something magical happens when he is on stage.”
None of Smith’s recordings has ever been released. “The problem was that Lucille hated what she saw as illegal recordings. She would just slam the phone down on anyone suggesting anything like that was released.”
Rollins’s parents were from the Virgin Islands, and he was born in Harlem in 1930. He “always knew in this incarnation I was to be a musician”, but he veered away from classical music when he heard blues and jazz, particularly the tenor sax playing of Coleman Hawkins.
Immediately after leaving school, he was playing with big names such as Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and Roy Haynes.
His first album was released in 1951 on the Prestige label, and he went on to produce a series of now classic records such as Saxophone Colossus. This album included St Thomas, perhaps his best known tune: “It was a song my mother used to sing to me.”
As a youth, Rollins was wayward – arrested for armed robbery in 1950, spending 10 months in jail at Rikers Island, and re-arrested in 1952 for breaking the terms of his parole by using heroin.
But, like many of the more long-lived jazzers, such as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, he cleaned up his act through the discovery of Eastern philosophy.
In the late ’60s, he took a couple of years off to pursue this interest and travelled in India and Japan. “There are so many distractions and temptations on the road that you need a positive discipline like meditation or yoga. I still do yoga every day.”
With some of his recordings he has included what people see as banal or even silly material, such as I’m an Old Cowhand or There’s No Business Like Show Business. Rollins defends this eclecticism.
“The thing about jazz is that it includes everything. It’s a natural organic music that reflects life, and you are going to find drama, poetry, tragedy and a lot of humour, even silliness.”
Tenor Madness was his only recording with John Coltrane, who, at the time, was a much less well-known figure than Rollins. Does he ever wish he’d recorded more with Coltrane? “Other people seem to worry about that kind of thing. Regret is not something I have much time for.”
He does think, though, about the greats he played with, such as Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis. “I think about these people all the time. Since I was blessed to have played with them and since I am one of the few players from that era remaining, I feel a responsibility to keep my music on as high a level as possible in their honour.”
So the struggle goes on. “Age has to be served,” he says, “and, technically, I may be a little less agile, but I feel I could still become more powerful and potent.”
When I ask him what music he’s listening to, he says: “I’d like to express myself on a higher level, so I really don’t get time to listen to other people’s music. There’s too much music in my head.”
Peter Culshaw (The Telegraph)
1. Sonny, Please (Sonny Rollins) 7:59
2. Someday I’ll Find You (Noël Coward) 9:53
3. Nishi (Sonny Rollins) 7:52
4. Stairway to the Stars (Matty Malneck / Mitchell Parish / Frank Signorelli) 5:14
5. Remembering Tommy (Sonny Rollins) 7:42
6. Serenade (Ballet Les Millions d’Arlequin) 8:18
7. Park Palace Parade (Sonny Rollins) 7:29
Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone
Clifton Anderson: trombone
Bobby Broom: guitar
Bob Cranshaw, electric and acoustic bass
Steve Jordan: drums
Joe Corsello: drums (6)
Kimiti Dinizulu: percussion
Recorded December 20 – 21, 2005 (Studio A), January 13, 2006 (Studio B) and February 9, 2006 (Studio B), at Avatar Studios, New York City
Executive-Producer: Sonny Rollins
Produced by Clifton Anderson
Recorded and Mixed by Richard Corsello
Mastered by Fred Kevorkian
Engineers: Jim Keller, Johnny Montagnese, Peter Doris, Ross Peterson, Russ Hoppe
Art Direction, Design: Kirk Q. Brown
Project Coordinator: Peter Downey
Tenor saxophone legend Sonny Rollins took his band
into the studio in late 2005 and early 2006 after a tour in Japan to
record Sonny Please, his first studio recording in five years.
According to Rollins, “…a string of performances tightens up an
ensemble…,” and a spin of the disc bears that out. A tighter ensemble
seems to allow Rollins the freedom and inspiration to really blow, to loosen up
his chops. And Sonny Rollins, loose and inspired, is something to hear.
This is a marvelously sequenced set, alternating four Rollins originals with standards. The title tune, an original, opens the show, with Rollins’ unmistakable tenor sax sound blowing over a bubbling rhythm. He’s never sounded better, with a “freer” approach than he’s displayed in years. Joining Rollins on the set are two longtime cohorts, trombonist Clifton Anderson and bassist Bob Cranshaw, along with guitarist Bobby Broom, drummer Steve Jordan and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, who adds an ebullient world beat tint to the proceedings.
The Noel Coward standard “Someday I’ll Find
You” is up next. It’s a tune Rollins has recorded before, on Freedom
Suite (OJC, 1958)—a trio take, with Oscar Pettiford on bass and Max
Roach on drums, the second tune on that album, too, after the sprawling,
freewheeling title track. A back-to-back listen to the two versions says not
that much has changed; Sonny Rollins still has a distinctive way with a
standard, playing in a straightforward powerhouse fashion, with a lot of finesse
mixed in with the muscle.
“Remembering Tommy” is another Rollins tune, penned for the late pianist Tommy Flanagan, who played on Rollins’ 1996 set Sonny Rollins + 3 (Milestone). Rollins blows freely over a fluid groove, giving way to a relatively restrained Clifton Anderson trombone solo.
Sonny Rollins and company sound superb on Sonny, Please, his best disc since Sonny Rollins +3.
Dan McClenaghan (All About Jazz)