Sep 28, 2012 Features
Somebody sent me this interview of Sonny Rollins by Dave Pehling that came out today in SF Weekly. I will skip the intro, figuring anyone here knows enough about Sonny’s history, and go straight to the interview, in which Sonny is quite open and thoughtful
Q: You initially played piano and alto saxophone before settling on tenor, but from what I gather, that was because an alto horn just ended up in your household?
Sonny: No, my mother bought me an alto. I was an aficionado of the rhythm and blues band of Louis Jordan, and he played alto. He played tenor too, but mainly he played alto. So at that time I just wanted a saxophone, and it didn’t really matter until a few years later when Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” was the big sensation. Then I wanted to play like Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to get that tenor sound.
Q: Had you played piano much before you got your first horn?
Sonny: No, my older brother and sister, they were classically trained. I was the baby, and when I didn’t want to play piano and wanted to play stickball in the street, my mother kind of let me get away with it. So I never really did get into the piano. I use the piano now to compose and just play around with, but I never really studied piano.
Q: In one interview I came across, you referred to yourself as “a primitive” in terms of being a self-taught musician, or at least that you didn’t study music academically. Do you still feel that way after so many years of playing?
Sonny: Well, all these years I’ve been fortunate enough to be taught, so to speak, by a lot of great musicians I came in contact with and play with. They all showed me their tricks and everything. So I wouldn’t say that I’m self-taught. That would be deceptive. What I mean when I say I’m a primitive, I’m looking for music which is not the norm. It doesn’t always come out that way, I know, but I’m still searching. I still practice every day. I’m a guy that’s still writing music. I’m changing my band. So I’m a guy who is still searching for something.
Q: So you’d say primitive as opposed to refined?
Q: I found it really interesting in some interviews where you discuss your approach to live performance that you said it was best to work from as much of a blank slate as possible to open yourself up to what comes to mind and what comes out of your horn naturally…
Sonny: Absolutely. That’s exactly the way I try to operate. As a musician, there’s a lot that you learn. You’ve got to learn your materials, your songs, harmonics. There’s a lot that you have to know. But after knowing that, then you leave that. You’ve learned it; you’ve assimilated that. Then you let your subconscious take over. I surprise myself when that happens. I never know what I’m going to play. I’m not a musician that can sort of play the same thing every night the same way. It’s great to be able to do that, but I’m not that kind of a musician. That’s not my talent. My stuff is completely spontaneous. Well, mainly spontaneous. Like I said, you do have to know the materials that you’re working with, and then it’s spontaneous.
Q: You’ve referred to jazz as the “king of all musics.” Is that sort of what you’re speaking of as far as what your knowledge base has to be in order to be able to execute it properly?
Sonny: Well I think that, especially in our world, we have so many kinds of music now. There’s your so-called popular music and all these offshoots and world musics. But jazz is somehow the tops. And I don’t mean this in a way to sound like I’m putting other music down. I’m not. Everybody loves jazz music. I find guys who play all styles of music and when they talk about jazz music, they speak in a very reverential way. They know how difficult it is to play. It’s very technical music, but at the same time it’s a very free music, like I was just describing to you. And musicians realize this. All these styles of music that you hear, like reggae and hip hop, they owe a lot to jazz. They owe a lot to jazz.
Q: You’ve worked with and were exposed to a lot of iconic jazz pioneers growing up in New York. I wanted to ask you about being mentored by Thelonius Monk while you were still in your teens. I have a hard time imaging how — in the modern times — a teenager would get access to someone of that stature. Was it really just a matter of meeting him and expressing interest?
Sonny: No [laughs]. You know, jazz is a meritocracy. You have to be good. You have to be talented. It’s a gift. You have to have a gift. All the guys I grew up with, we all wanted to play jazz. We all wanted to be jazz musicians. I had the talent. So when Monk heard me play — I was playing someplace with my little group — he liked my playing. It wasn’t that he pulled me out of a Rolodex or something. So he knew that I had potential. So I began playing with Monk and absorbing all of the things I could. Later on, when I studied some Eastern disciplines like yoga and all that, I began to be familiar with the term “guru.” And I realized that Monk was my guru. So I was very fortunate that Monk heard me and I was able to play with him at an early age.
Q: I really enjoyed the performance “Sonnymoon for Two” with Ornette Coleman from your latest live album, Road Shows, Vol. 2. It was obviously a real landmark moment given that you had never shared the stage before. Do you have any plans for similar collaborations with high-profile players of Ornette’s caliber or maybe something more long term?
Sonny: Well I don’t have any plans, and I don’t anticipate having an all-star group or being involved in an all-star group. I don’t think that’s going to happen. As far as playing with some people of the stature of Ornette Coleman — and there aren’t a lot of people of his stature — I am not averse to playing with other well-known artists. If the situation is right and we can do some music together that I feel comfortable with and they feel comfortable with, yeah, I’m very much open to doing something like that again. As far as a tour, no. That would take a lot of things that would actually be extraneous to the music as far as I can see, so I wouldn’t do that. But yes, I’m very open and the possibility exists that I might do that. I’ve been thinking about doing that.
Q: As far as your recordings, it has been some time since your last studio album, Sonny Please, in 2006. The last couple of releases have been more recent live recordings that you’ve put out on your own label. Do you find the immediacy of the performances in a live setting preferable to a studio recording?
Sonny: Not entirely. I think there’s something to be said for my live albums, but I appreciate studio albums. As a matter of fact, I was going to make a studio album this year, but this year’s now almost gone and it didn’t happen. But I think they are two different animals. I’m overdue to do a studio album and would hope to be able to do that sometime soon.