In an exclusive interview with People magazine in March 2018, legendary tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins discussed the reissue of his 1957 album, Way Out West; the establishment of a Sonny Rollins archive; and the importance of diligent and continuous practice to his development as a player and composer:

Sonny-Rollins-with-Mohawk-by-Lee-Tanner“A lot of the people I grew up with in my early teens, we all wanted to be jazz musicians — but we didn’t have the talent. It was a gift. Music is a gift. Anybody can learn music, but it’s only a few people who have a gift that are really talented enough — especially these days — to make it in this highly competitive world. So it’s definitely a gift. However, you have to apply yourself, you have to work at it. I had a gift, but I didn’t explore it enough, I feel, and that’s why I was always the guy who practiced incessantly. I was always trying to catch up and learn things.”

— Source: People

The American jazz musician and composer talks to David Marchese at Vulture
Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins

What sorts of feelings did putting your archives in order stir up? That material is the stuff of your life, and now you’re giving it away.
I could say it put me in a reflective mood, but most of the archiving itself was done by someone else, and the truth is that my life has been in a reflective mode for some years now. Maybe my whole life has been in that mode. It’s gotten more that way since I became unable to blow by horn. That was hard. I’ve thought a lot about what I’ve done musically, what I could’ve done, what I might’ve done.

What’s the nature of those thoughts?
What’s the meaning of life? Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing?

Have you come up with any answers?
You know, I listen to the radio a lot and there’s a guy that comes on and says, “Have a good day today and enjoy.” I hate the word “enjoy.” Because to me life is not about enjoyment or, in other words, getting for yourself. That’s not why we’re here. The reason of life, to me, is all about giving. Giving is what gives me happiness. Making somebody else happy is the greatest thing you can do. (more…)

Sonny Rollins during the recording of A Night at the Village Vanguard. Francis Wolff:Blue Note Records

Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of Sonny Rollins‘s legendary recording,
A Night at the Village Vanguard. Writing for NPR, Nate Chinen reached out to several experts and practitioners to discuss the album’s ongoing influence:

Jon Irabagon, who calls A Night at the Village Vanguard ‘a formative album for me,’ gave it a fresh listen this week, and was struck again by its genius. ‘Rollins had one foot completely in the tradition, he was mining these standards, and he was also part of the aliveness — the surging life-quality — of jazz,’ he said. ‘Then it’s the harmonic freedom, the melodic integrity and just the playfulness that he had. It’s not beholden to some kind of codified language. There are so many surprises and twists and turns. You can hear the entire history of jazz on that record, up to that point.’

It would be misleading to imply that Rollins’ heroic performance on A Night at the Village Vanguard is primarily of interest to other saxophonists. ‘It’s a textbook example of what modern jazz improvisation should be,’ the pianist Fred Hersch pronounced in an email. ‘Sonny plays with intelligence, warmth, humor and an expressive technique that seems to know no bounds.’ Hersch, who literally wore out his first copy of the album, advises all his piano students to study it closely, ‘as a means to understanding the subtlety of phrasing and deep connection to rhythm that Sonny, Wilbur [Ware] and Elvin [Jones] display.'”

— Nate Chinen, NPR

Catching up on my reading. What follows are a few of the articles and interviews that have caught my eye over the last few weeks – and some that I have been inspired to revisit.

Joseph Conrad on Henry James and what makes a great writerMarilynne Robinson on William Faulkner and what literature owes to the Bible • Sonny Rollins on how fifty years of practicing yoga made him a better musician • Alex Ross on the consolations of Arvo Pärt‘s music • Peter Bouteneff in conversation about Arvo Pärt • On the lasting emotional impact of Louis Kahn‘s architecture

Celebrating one of the leading composers and performers in the history of jazz
Actual print used on the cover of A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965)
Actual print used on the cover of A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965)

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Coltrane. When he died of liver cancer on 17 July 1967, the composer and saxophonist had established a reputation as one of the leading figures in jazz music. While on the rise, he played as sideman on records by Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk. He found popular success as a leader with records such as Blue Train (Blue Note, 1957), My Favorite Things (Atlantic, 1961), and his 1965 masterpiece, A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965). In addition to his commercial viability as a composer and performer, Coltrane was known for his searching sound and his increasing commitment to free jazz improvisation through the 1960s. (more…)

A few interesting pieces have caught my eye over the last few days. Not least among them is David Collard‘s piece, ‘Déjà lu: On the pleasures of rereading’ from one of the April issues of the TLS:

“Apart from books I’ve conscientiously read and re-read for review purposes, the novels I’ve read several times include Beckett’s Murphy, Isherwood‘s Prater VioletMoby-DickMadame Bovary, Lolita and perhaps a dozen others.”

Books2A more recent issue of the TLS has published an edited version of an article written by Virginia Woolf on Henry David Thoreau back in 1917 • New York’s Tyrant Books has published three (very) short stories by Lydia Davis • Electric Literature offers ’10 Great Novels of the Rural’, courtesy of Michelle Hoover • John Lé Carre discusses why we should learn German to help build bridges in today’s political climate • Open Culture shares 1977 footage of a young David Lynch discussing his iconic début feature length film, Eraserhead • The Wire reports that Robert Mugge’s 1986 film Sonny Rollins: Saxophone Colossus is to be rereleased on BluRay and DVD

John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon and Who Is Harry Nilsson…?) has written and directed a film celebrating the life and work of legendary tenor saxophonist John Coltrane. Entitled Chasing Trane, the documentary has been made with the full support of the Coltrane family, and has been granted access to the composer’s extensive back catalogue. Featuring interviews with some of the biggest names in jazz (Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis), the documentary includes family movies that promise to reveal a new side to one of the towering artists of twentieth-century music. [Read More]

Part of a sequence of records showing a master improviser at the height of his powers
Sonny Rollins, Newk's Time (Blue Note, 1957)
Sonny Rollins, Newk’s Time (Blue Note, 1959)

In his autobiography, Miles Davis remembers taking a New York cab with Sonny Rollins: “the white cabdriver turned around and looked at Sonny and said, ‘Damn, you’re Don Newcombe!’”, confusing the saxophonist with the Brooklyn Dodgers star pitcher. Davis goes on: “Man, the guy was totally excited. I was amazed, because I hadn’t thought about it before. We put that cabdriver on something terrible. Sonny started talking about what kind of pitches he was going to throw Stan Musial, the great hitter for the St. Louis Cardinals, that evening”. Rollins’ resemblance to the player became the origin of a nickname ‘Newk’, by which he was known by Davis, Charlie Parker, and the wider jazz community.

Newk’s Time, a Blue Note album recorded on this day in 1957, was Rollins’ third album for the label and anticipates his landmark live recording Night at the Village Vanguard that November. (more…)

The most important sound engineer in jazz history has died, aged 91
If you’ve ever heard a jazz record, chances are you’ve heard the work of Rudy Van Gelder. But you wouldn’t have heard him playing the drums, the piano, the saxophone, or the trumpet (although he had lessons in his youth) – and you wouldn’t have heard him singing into the microphone. That’s because he was the microphone. In a manner of speaking. Born in New Jersey on 2 November 1924, Rudolph (Rudy) Van Gelder became the most prominent sound engineer in American jazz history. He recorded just about every major figure in the canon, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.

(more…)

Tenor saxophonist reflects on a career spanning more than 65 years
Sonny-Rollins-with-Mohawk-by-Lee-Tanner.jpg
Sonny Rollins

One of the last in a generation of jazz greats, Sonny Rollins once thought music could change the world. His optimism about humanity has since vanished but, at 85, he still has much he wants to say.

The “Saxophone Colossus”, a nickname that was also the title of his seminal 1956 album, is among a handful of sax players including John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins who defined the instrument, with Rollins creating a heavy-charging, mordant style that was also readily experimental.

The hard-working tenor saxophonist has taken several extended sabbaticals, most famously when he temporarily retired – yet would practice on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. He later moved to India and Japan to explore spirituality. (more…)

Sonny Rollins
Sonny Rollins
An excerpt from a 2011 interview with Chris Richards (The Washington Post)

Mature, precocious, cultured and determined. Aside from a few summers in Maryland, Rollins spent his childhood in Harlem, a cultural epicenter that would shape him into a jazz icon who would steer the trajectory of the genre and the concept of improvisation writ large. As Rollins looks back, the chapters of his life often slice into neat little halves — separate realities where he toggled between success and struggle, renown and solitude. He apprenticed with the bop gods (Charlie Parker, Miles Davis) while battling the dark forces of addiction. At his highest levels of acclaim, he took mysterious sabbaticals that felt like vanishing acts. Today, Rollins says he gets through “this world full of problems” by reaching for higher spiritual plateaus that he “can almost touch,” but never quite does. (more…)