Sonny Rollins Reveals The Secret Of His Success

Tenor sax titan talks about improvisation and facing anxiety in the studio.

When tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins hits his stride on the bandstand, his solos are larger-than-life and thoroughly awe-inspiring.

"You've got to know a lot of s--- to follow his solo," said saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who has shared stage and recording studio with Rollins. Marsalis describes the tenor saxophone titan as having "a brain in constant motion."

Rollins is "constantly trying to find obtuse and strange things to add and incorporate into the solo — obscure Broadway songs and old classical pieces," Marsalis said.

And just how does Rollins construct these magnificent, stream-of-consciousness excursions?

"I'll give you the formula," Rollins, 69, said from a "commuter" apartment he maintains in New York. "Whenever I'm playing a particular song, I try to learn the ins and outs of the songs. I learn the chords, I learn the melody. And I learn the lyrics if it has words.

"Then when I get onstage and I'm going through an improvisation, why then I try to forget everything and let the subconscious take over. So that's really what I'm doing when I'm on the stage. First I learn the rudiments of the song, and then I let the music play itself."

On The Road Again

Rollins performed a free concert outdoors at New York's Lincoln Center Aug. 5 and reports are that his improvisations were staggering — hours of nonstop ideas and inspiration tumbling out of his horn. His concert schedule will keep him fairly busy in the United States until mid-November, and then he'll head to Europe for shows in the spring.

Rollins' touring band consists of trombonist Clifton Anderson, pianist Stephen Scott, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Harry Wilson and percussionist Victor See-Yuen.

Next week he'll be in the Fantasy studios in Berkeley, Calif., to put the finishing touches on his yet-to-be-titled next album. To be released toward the end of the year on Milestone, it features his current band (less See-Yuen but with special guest drummer Jack DeJohnette on some numbers) and will most likely feature half originals and half non-standard standards, depending on how the final mixes turn out.

Rollins has a bit of a reputation for perfectionism. "I still have to edit (the album) and make sure that everything is correct," he said. "I haven't listened to everything back yet. That's the hardest part about being in the studio, listening to everything back. I cringe, so I try to save that until last.

"When I started out, they made 78 rpm records," he continued. "Now in those days nobody thought very much about it. You just went into the studio, and you played. Now with all the benefit we have from technology, I've gotten self-conscious about wanting to bring out the best side and everything. It's very hard to go in the studio and be completely relaxed as you would be in a live performance."

Rubbing Elbows With Monk, Davis

In part because of his constant striving for excellence, Rollins retired from the music scene altogether from 1959–61 and again from 1968–71. A native of Harlem, N.Y., he grew up listening to big bands on the radio and caught live performances by the likes of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington and the Mother Horn touring gospel show.

Reluctantly studying piano at age 5, he took up the alto saxophone at 8 and persuaded his mother to buy him a tenor at age 13, at which point, he says, he became a "Coleman Hawkins devotee."

While still in high school Rollins would practice at pianist and bebop pioneer Thelonious Monk's house. After graduating, Rollins immersed himself in the local bop-crazed scene, playing and recording with the likes of trumpeters Miles Davis and Fats Navarro and pianist Bud Powell.

"I would say I broke in playing with those guys, so I'd say I broke in at the top," he said. Rollins was also a member of the famed Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet from 1955 until trumpeter Brown's untimely passing in 1957.

Rollins' recordings, including 1956's Saxophone Colossus, 1957's A Night at the Village Vanguard, Vols. 1 & 2, 1966's East Broadway Rundown and 1996's Sonny Rollins Plus 3, are staples in many a jazz library. And his compositions, such as "St. Thomas" (RealAudio excerpt), "Airegin" and "Oleo," have become part of the modern jazz songbook.

"It's a great privilege that I'm able to play," Rollins said. "Fortunately, I've been able to make a career out of it."

Sonny Rollins tour dates:

Aug. 11; Saratoga, Calif.; Villa Montalvo Garden

Aug. 13; San Diego, Calif.; Humphrey's

Sept. 16; Cranford, N.J.; Jazz by the Lake

Sept. 23; Lexington, Ky.; Singletary Center

Sept. 29; Indianapolis, Ind.; Butler University

Oct. 6; Atlanta, Ga; Variety Playhouse

Oct. 27; Boston, Mass; Berklee Performance Center

Nov. 4; Englewood, N.J.; John Harms Center

Nov. 11; Philadelphia, Pa.; Zellerbach Theatre

Nov. 18; Berkeley, Calif.; Zellerbach Auditorium

March 2; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Univ. Of North Carolina

March 11; Cleveland, Ohio; Severance Hall

March 23; Chicago, Ill.; Symphony Hall

March 25; Minneapolis, Minn.; Ted Mann Concert Hall

Apr. 28; London, England; Barbican Centre

May 2; Paris, France; Olympia

May 6; Basel, Switzerland; Stadt-Casino Grosser Musiksaal

May 8, Cologne, Germany; Philharmonie

May 12, Stuttgart, Germany; Liederhalle

June 23; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Power Center