Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisationby Eric Nisenson
Sonny Rollins is one of jazz's great innovators, arguably the most influential tenor saxophonist, along with John Coltrane, in the history of modern jazz. He began his musical career at the age of eleven, and within five short years he was playing with the legendary Thelonious Monk. In the late forties, before his twenty-first birthday, Rollins was in full swing,
Sonny Rollins is one of jazz's great innovators, arguably the most influential tenor saxophonist, along with John Coltrane, in the history of modern jazz. He began his musical career at the age of eleven, and within five short years he was playing with the legendary Thelonious Monk. In the late forties, before his twenty-first birthday, Rollins was in full swing, recording with jazz luminaries such as Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis, and he was hailed as the best jazz tenor man alive in the mid-fifties. Still active today, Rollins and his compelling sound reach a whole new generation of listeners with his eagerly anticipated live appearances. Now renowned jazz writer Eric Nisenson provides a long-overdue look at one of jazz's brightest, and most enduring, stars.
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Sonny Rollins and his World of Improvisation
By Eric Nisenson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2000 Eric Nisenson
All rights reserved.
Sonny Rollins Is in the House!
The rewards for an audience catching Sonny Rollins on a good night go beyond hearing the actual music itself. Being able to actually watch Rollins as he improvises is a fascinating spectacle; there is a powerful physicality in the way he produces sound through his tenor saxophone. The fierce determination that he devotes to producing his flow of sound brings to mind the image of Ahab trying to kill his quarry. The great slabs of sound Rollins produces are so viscerally compelling that they seem to have actual physical properties. We almost feel we can touch the notes.
As members of his audience, we can only guess at the mental, physical, and emotional processes and strategies through which Sonny creates his music. But on Rollins's best nights, we in the audience become so uplifted in Sonny's grip that we have no thoughts about how he achieves what he does. We are just so glad to be in this place, listening to him, right now, right here, in this moment. If you have never been fortunate enough to catch Sonny Rollins on one of his better nights, here is a sketch:
We hear Sonny before we see him. After his band settles in, he begins playing, still backstage; as he gets closer to the stage his sound grows in intensity. When he finally strolls onstage he continues to play — usually a favorite standard; perhaps "I'm Old-Fashioned" — without any acknowledgment of his audience. He begins his improvisation with only slight variations of the melody as he restlessly prowls around the stand, in step with the rhythm. At first, his improvising is tentative and probing, as if he is testing various directions for the best course to follow. When he takes off, the atmosphere becomes molten. He continues to pace the stage (he has a small microphone in the bell of his horn), almost as if trying to find the spot most conducive to his sound. Now we can hear his tenor saxophone in all its glory, that big burly tone; just the sound of Rollins's horn is so muscular that we are immediately enthralled. His tone, by turns gruff and cello-like, is so full that it seems to envelop the entire venue. Tonal variation is as important to Sonny's improvising as his melodic line or rhythmic conception.
Sonny himself is an imposing figure: tall, with an elegant beard, sharply yet tastefully dressed, charismatic, deadly serious. He walks with the physical confidence we usually associate with great athletes; and, like a great athlete, he seems in command of everything around him. Despite the fact that his hair is now gray, he walks with a youthful gait, steady and confident. When he plays, the veins in his head are pronounced; his powerful torso and arms are taut. But it is his eyes that draw us in; his eyes are sad and wise, ancient and compassionate.
* * *
Viewing Sonny as he plays, chorus after chorus, growing more and more impassioned and inventive, it becomes clear that every atom of his being is engaged into the production of his music. It is not just Sonny's breath that is being blown through his horn; it is his entire being. His physical, emotional, and spiritual self is blown through the reed, into the mouthpiece, around the curves of his horn, and past the keys. Finally, this essence of Sonny Rollins flows out of the gleaming golden bell of his saxophone, changed by the alchemy of his genius into the cosmic geometry of music.
The strength of his playing makes the band coalesce into a tight singular unit, both supporting and propelling him as he stretches out and soars. He is truly wailing now, arching back. The lights dance over his golden saxophone as he walks and rocks in time with the rhythm. After he has been playing this first solo for fifteen or twenty minutes, we become aware of his stamina; just as it seems that he must be running out of ideas, he soars even further afield. His phrasing is more often speechlike than legato, yet even that is never predictable. Sometimes he seems to be talking to us directly through his horn, telling us stories or sharing insights and ironies with us. We wonder how he can have the resources not only to play with such intensity for so long but also to continually create so many fresh ideas.
* * *
The longer he solos, the more complex his lines. He never seems to repeat himself. He returns back to the theme, repeats it another time or two, and then his improvising becomes even more intense. His harmonic conception often seems like a kind of musical Möbius strip: he seems to be zigging and zagging both inside and outside the chord changes, sometimes in a single phrase.
At times Sonny's playing is daringly chromatic, but then he will follow such a passage with sly quotes from other tunes, ranging from "Night and Day" to "Stars and Stripes Forever." But these quotes are not used in lieu of invention, nor do they reflect cleverness for its own sake (although Rollins has a musical sense of humor not unlike that of his great mentor, Thelonious Monk). Instead, Sonny fits these quotes snugly into the overall design of his solo, making perfect, and witty, sense in the context of the entire performance. His ability to create musical puns and self-referential paradoxes makes Sonny the jazz equivalent of Vladimir Nabokov.
* * *
We follow his solo breathlessly, feeling that Sonny is addressing us directly, speaking of great truths and ironies, reaching us on a level deeper than language itself, exhorting us to awareness of our lives right here in this moment. We notice that we are not the only ones astounded by Rollins's inventiveness; Sonny's sidemen break into small smiles and quiet laughter every time Sonny takes an unexpected course or creates one of his wonderful musical puns.
Perhaps Sonny's greatest musical sorcery is rhythmic. No one, including Charlie Parker, could create such rhythmic legerdemain. At certain points, Sonny seemingly stops the flow of time itself; at others, he seems to flatten rhythm, creating the illusion that time is floating over and against the flow of the rhythm section, almost giving rhythm an actual life of its own. Yet as magical and amazing as these aural illusions may seem, Rollins's protean strength and determination stamp everything he plays with a muscular authority.
* * *
As Sonny's solo goes on for chorus after chorus, many of us are undoubtedly comparing him with John Coltrane, his friend and colleague who also played improvisations of great length. The two have often been compared, but their musical sensibilities are profoundly different. Coltrane's long, long, powerful solos seemed to provide emotional and spiritual catharsis. The incendiary intensity of his improvisations seared our souls and blew our minds. But Sonny's long solos celebrate the sheer joy of improvising and express the infinite possibilities of both music and life. Sonny does not seem to be ripping apart his soul, but rather to be inviting us to dance with our minds. Coltrane's playing always seemed like one brave man's plunge into the void; but it is difficult to imagine Sonny playing as he does without an audience. As audience, we are his partners in creation, as necessary for his musical calculus as his horn or breath.
* * *
Finally, Sonny's long, long solo reaches an end. He starts another tune and plays briefly, letting the other members of his group solo. They are all superb musicians, but following a lengthy, superb Rollins solo is a daunting task for even the greatest of jazzmen. The audience, overwhelmed, may find it hard to even focus on anything else. But at least the other solos give Sonny a chance to regain his strength. Earlier in his career he often played with just bass and drums, and sometimes with no other players at all. Now, well into his sixties, he no longer feels strong enough to play in such a demanding and exhausting context. Despite his age (quite an advanced age for a jazz musician) he continues to improvise on a level that few have equaled.
After a series of fours between Sonny and the drummer, he plays the theme and takes the tune out. Next is a ballad — say, "For All We Know." Sonny's ballad style reminds us of such classic tenormen as Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, and Ben Webster. Like them, Rollins uses his big sound and his sense of drama to wonderful effect. Playing ballads is one of the great challenges for a jazz musician. Overdo the emotionality and a ballad can easily turn purple, dripping with the sentimentality that most jazz musicians spurn.
Just stating the melody is a crucial test for a jazz musician; it requires the skill in phrasing that only the greatest singers, such as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, possess, and the rhythmic confidence to make it a truly jazz interpretation. Improvising at ballad tempo is one of the most difficult tasks in jazz. A jazz musician cannot just "play the changes" or rely on clichés or riffs and licks at this tempo, because his lack of invention will be far too obvious. He must at least try to improvise melody that is not too far from the ballad itself. Since jazz musicians have a knack for songs of great melodic and harmonic beauty, improvising melody equal to that of the tune itself is extremely challenging, a task that only the best jazzmen have truly mastered. Sonny is one of them. He can create melodic ideas at a slow tempo as well as any of the other great jazz improvisers — Charlie Parker, Lester Young, or Sonny's idol, Coleman Hawkins. His superior rhythmic conception gives his ballads an inner strength and a feeling of conviction rare in jazz or any other form of music. Rollins's improvisational conception in ballads extends even to his tone, which becomes less gruff and more rich than the sound he uses for up-tempo pieces.
* * *
Sonny reprises the melody, and it seems as if the ballad is coming to its end. But after the band lays out, Sonny plays an extended unaccompanied coda, which takes on a life of its on, becoming a musical statement within a statement. Such prolonged, unaccompanied improvising is truly playing without a net, and it is often the ultimate expression of Rollins's genius. Listening to this bravura performance, we in the audience are as filled with suspense as we would be during a particularly daring and difficult feat performed by a tightrope acrobat a hundred feet off the ground. When the unaccompanied coda finally ends, the crowd explodes into applause; we are awed, but also deeply relieved, as in that moment when the tightrope walker finally slides down the pole to the safety of the ground.
Following the ballad, Sonny changes the mood by playing a calypso, a genre associated with his name ever since his performance of "St. Thomas" (a calypso tune he heard his mother sing while he was a very young boy) on the masterpiece album Saxophone Colossus, recorded in 1956. Sonny's calypso improvisations are among the most joyous in all of jazz. This is where Sonny's rhythmic mastery becomes particularly obvious: he creates a rollicking, carnival-like atmosphere that rocks the audience to the point of ecstasy. Not to dance seems nearly impossible. At the end he plays a long cadenza, full of quotes from other tunes that seem to rise out of the flurry of notes like bubbles in champagne.
And then it is over. Sonny announces the names of the other musicians and then strolls off, casually but with almost imperial dignity. Inevitably, the crowd calls for more.
* * *
Sonny has a quite different view of his performance. Knowing and understanding his perspective should tell us a lot about both him and the nature of jazz improvisation.
For Sonny, live performance is the only genuine jazz experience, at least in terms of improvisation. He records because he must, but he lives for live performance. According to Sonny, an improvisation should be heard only once, at the time it has been performed, and then never heard again. This obviously makes the entire concept of recording in the studio profoundly antithetical to his musical philosophy. Being able to go back and redo a tune, or to edit out mistakes or overdub, runs contrary to the spontaneity that, to Sonny, is at the heart of the jazz aesthetic. In live performance, there are no second chances. Everything you play is for keeps, at least in that moment. According to Sonny (as well as most fans and critics), he only very rarely plays as well in the studio as he does live. He also doesn't play at his best when he is being recorded in an onstage performance (or, at least, when he is aware of being recorded). Being recorded makes him self-conscious and less able to let the music flow through him.
Sonny has become a master strategist in establishing the right set and setting for the creation of superlative musical improvisation. Bill Evans once said of himself that he had an inner switch that he could turn on so he could improvise whenever he performed. Responding to this, Sonny said, "Yes, I know what he is talking about. But I bet that Bill would also say that there were nights when he had no need to turn that switch on, and that the music just poured through him. That is what I live for."
Any performance is usually preceded by preparation, even a performance so based on spontaneity as jazz. This preparation for Sonny is minimal, at least now, in the latter part of his career. Sonny has always had to deal with the physical demands of playing in such a bravura style, and with the exigencies of improvisation itself. "I don't like to rehearse," he says.
I used to rehearse a lot, and I used to like rehearsing because I enjoy playing. These days I only work about fifty dates a year. If I worked more, I could work over new material with my band right on the job. I used to be able to rehearse four or five hours a day. Just playing, really. Refining things. A lot of it would be improvisation and finding ways to relate to each other while we are playing. I shouldn't say, actually, that I don't like to rehearse. I used to like to rehearse. But now I don't.
Sonny's former boss Miles Davis was famous for preparing his musicians as minimally as possible and for rarely holding rehearsals for his bands. He wanted his musicians to understand what he demanded of them through intuition and their own refined musical sensibility, not from his direction.
Like Miles, Sonny rarely makes a point of directing his band members. Sometimes this poses a problem:
I was accused at one time by some of the members of my band of not talking to them and telling them what I wanted. My wife [his wife, Lucille, is also his manager] has accused me [of this] ... because the band members would come to her and used to say, "Gee, if Sonny would just tell us what he wanted ..." I have been accused of that. Miles Davis has been accused of doing the same thing.
So did Sonny learn this from his former boss? "No," replies Sonny.
It just seems to be a natural thing to do. But I am like Miles in that if a guy is up there playing with me, playing with this band, then he should be given the freedom to be himself. So if you've earned the right to be up there, I don't want to have to be telling you what to do. If you are playing on this level, playing with Miles or me, you should be able to handle this and know what I want without my actually telling you. I am mainly an intuitive player. And I guess I expect the members of the band to be kind of the same way.
Intuition, sensitivity, an ear for nuance, even a bit of ESP are necessary attributes for musicians who play with master improvisers such as Rollins and Miles.
* * *
A special problem facing musicians who play in Sonny's group is his immense repertoire. Rollins knows hundreds of tunes, many of them old chestnuts. Most bandleaders have a far more limited repertoire, relatively easy for the musicians to learn. Sonny rarely rehearses and while on the bandstand is likely to play any of the tunes from the vast number of songs that he knows and plays; isn't this a major problem for his sidemen? According to Sonny:
Yes, this probably is a problem for my musicians. But, you know, I can't subvert my energies to the band. I can't try and think like one of my sidemen. I can't do that because then I will be diminishing what I am expected to do. But I suppose this is a problem at times.
On the bandstand, Sonny wants to feel completely free to go in any direction that his imagination takes him at that particular moment. And his musicians simply must have a sharp enough ear and sufficient technical facility to provide adequate support for Sonny no matter in what direction his muse wanders.
This is Sonny's single most important requirement for his band: it should never hamper his own freedom, never interfere with his playing at the transcendent level that is the greatest experience of his life — "better than sex," he says. He has a single agenda when he plays: creating "music that is truly Sonny Rollins, the music that comes out of who and what I really am."
* * *
In a piece written about Sonny many years ago, it was reported that he had hired a certain untalented trumpeter (nobody famous) because the trumpet man's playing was so bad that it made Sonny angry. And he played best when he was mad. Hearing this story Sonny, laughs and says:
I can't remember the particular situation. But when I am angry there is a difference in my playing. I've been told that, especially by my wife. I might be angry at my wife and go out and play better. But I hate to make these things a general rule because they are not always true. It's very complicated. But that story is not impossible.
Excerpted from Open Sky by Eric Nisenson. Copyright © 2000 Eric Nisenson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Eric Nisenson is the author of several jazz books, including The Making of Kind of Blue. He lives in Malden, Massachusetts.
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