Sonny Rollins is still blowing strong

Boston Globe, April 17, 2010

The last time Sonny Rollins performed in this region, he closed out the 2008 Newport Jazz Festival with a potent, expansive set, his tenor sax broadcasting relentless improvised patterns into the salty breeze as the sun went down over Fort Adams. The impression was forceful and nearly elegiac, the muscular music of the Saxophone Colossus – as he’s been affectionately known throughout jazz since the famous 1956 album by that title – seeming to defy, obstinately, the waning light.

It’s almost inevitable that an air of the lion in winter now attends Rollins, who makes his first visit to Boston in three years tomorrow night at Symphony Hall, as part of a mini-tour of select venues to mark his 80th birthday (coming on Sept. 7).

A part of it is his stately demeanor, tall and elegant in the dapper jackets he favors, with his shock of white hair and generous beard. But the bigger part, of course, has to do with the gathering folds of history.


A widower since 2004, Rollins lives quietly in his farmhouse in the Hudson River valley. He is one of the few survivors of the generation that modernized jazz and threw open its doors of creative possibility in the 1950s. On the tenor saxophone, that totemic instrument of the jazz esthetic, he and John Coltrane outrank all others in influence.

Rollins knows and accepts that those who come to his concerts today seek, at least in part, to connect through him to an entire era that is abundantly recorded yet fast slipping from memory.

“I am a link to the golden age,” Rollins says on the phone from his home. “I used to feel very obligated to represent all of my departed peers. I thought, I’ve got to sound good not just for me but for Monk and all the guys I’m associated with. Eventually that feeling started to fade away. But I’m always in the company of my departed friends. I think about them; I dream about certain cats I was close to. I channel them, if that word is still in vogue now.”

Rollins speaks in a calm, deep voice, and is generous with his impressions and memories. He is not averse to making his politics clear (left wing) or tossing in a wry joke on pop culture: “I’m afraid to say I’m trying to attain Buddhahood,” he says, with a chuckle, about his spiritual life, “because Tiger Woods has made that unpopular.”

Buddha-like or not, Rollins is concerned with living fully, in the moment. His birthday makes a good opportunity for concerts but not much more: “I don’t care about landmarks and foolishness,” he says. “I am a musician very much into everyday activities. I practice everyday. I compose. I am in the middle of my career in my mind.”

He is coy about the program for this concert, citing ongoing composition and rehearsals, except to say that it will include new material “that I hope will demonstrate sort of a culmination of my career up to this point.”

The band on this series of dates offers a few clues: with Bobby Broom on guitar, Kobie Watkins on drums, Victor See-Yuen on percussion, and longtime partner Bob Cranshaw on bass, it conforms to Rollins’s now long-held preference for working without a piano.

“The piano is somewhat obtrusive to my style,” he says. With the guitar for harmonic accompaniment, and Cranshaw’s electric bass in the rhythm section, the sonic landscape gives both the space and the supporting texture to roam with maximum liberty.

“I am a stream-of-consciousness player,” Rollins says. “That’s what I do; that’s what I am.” He observes that the concept of stream of consciousness was not even in the vocabulary when he started. Nor was it a practical possibility, what with the limits of recording and the dogma of three-minute songs. “As technology changed, people were able to extemporize.”

Now it is Rollins’s heroic solos that make hearing him perform so different from his studio catalog. (A recent release of selected concert tapes, “Road Shows, Vol. I” gives an idea of the experience.) They also keep his repertoire fresh, as the standards, calypsos, and generally accessible compositions that he favors receive a new treatment every time.

“Interpretations in my style are so loose and so freewheeling that in essence they can become a new song, even though it’s the same song,” Rollins says. “The experience is completely new the whole time. I couldn’t improvise the same way if I wanted to.”

In concert, Rollins holds himself to exacting standards, as he does with all aspects of his life.

“I never thought anything was as important as understanding what I needed to do as an artist,” he says. “You can’t care about how the public reacts. It’s not something you can contemplate and anticipate. I try to get close to my inner self, and I know that will be OK. When I know I’m playing well, I know that everyone else feels that way.”