Music Interviews
2:18 pm
Sat May 3, 2014

Sonny Rollins: 'You Can't Think And Play At The Same Time'

Originally published on Sat May 3, 2014 3:27 pm

When you consider that critics have been writing about him for over 60 years, it can seem as if there's nothing left to say about Sonny Rollins. But there is – because over the decades, the "Saxophone Colossus" has never stopped growing or adding to his sound.

More than once, Rollins has stepped away from his adoring audiences for extended sabbaticals: He'd decide he wasn't good enough, take a couple of years off to practice and study, and come back when he felt ready. He's taking some time off again now, but that may be due more to the fact that he's 83 than a desire to rethink his music. In the meantime, Rollins has been leaking some live recordings for a series he calls "Road Shows."

The latest installment, Road Shows, Vol. 3, comes out Tuesday. He spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about the value of time away from the studio, and why, when you make your living improvising, a little spiritual practice can be a big help. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

These live recordings, your fans have been begging for them for years. Why now? What was it that, a few years ago, made you decide to start releasing this material?

Well, I got afraid of the recording studio. I've got a phobia about the "lights-camera-action." And a lot of people tell me that in person, with the audience and the ambiance, "Gee, I like you better when you're live, Sonny." So I said, OK, that's easy: I've got a lot of live performances, and I can pick and choose and put some out. Which was not so easy, actually.

There's a huge amount of material.

There's a lot of material out there, and I'm very strict on myself, so that I'm never satisfied with the stuff I hear. I don't like listening to myself; I'm not a guy that goes home and puts on a Sonny Rollins record. So picking and choosing can be quite excruciating.

What's hard for you about listening to older recordings of yourself?

Well, the older recordings I don't mind so much, because in those days — you know, when I was recording with J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell and all those great people — we just went in the studio for a short time, and we knew that was it. We rose to the occasion without any afterthought or forethought; we just went in there and recorded. Now, it's a lot different. When I was in the recording studio over at Fantasy [Records] for many years, I had the option of listening back and doing another take, and I did five, ten takes. That sort of changed the dynamic.

There's a track on Road Shows, Vol. 3 called "Patanjali," and that's the name of the great Hindu philosopher of yoga. You studied Indian philosophy and yoga in India, right?

Yes I did, and I'm still studying Indian philosophy.

I can see how yoga, with its emphasis on breathing, could be useful even on a technical level for a saxophonist. What has yoga brought to your playing?

Well, it's the concentration level. A lot of people think of yoga as the exercises — hatha yoga — which is only one form. There are other forms of yoga, and they are more contemplative, introspective, meditational. The thing is this: When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. I don't want to overtly think about anything, because you can't think and play at the same time — believe me, I've tried it (laughs). It goes by too fast. So when you're into yoga and when you're into improvisation, you want to reach that other level.

When you went to India — this was in the late '60s — it was at a time when you famously took sort of a sabbatical from playing and recording. What was it that triggered you to reach out in these other directions in that way?

I was into many things. I was into Rosicrucianism, I studied Buddhism, Kabbalah, even — I was really into those philosophies of life, as were some of my compatriots. We were trying to find a way to express life through our improvisations. The music has got to mean something. Jazz improvisation is supposed to be the highest form of communication, and getting that to the people is our job as musicians.

I'm not supposed to be playing, the music is supposed to be playing me. I'm just supposed to be standing there with the horn, moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me; that's when it's really happening.

It's hard to think of anything that you haven't accomplished, in terms of music. Is there something else out there that you still want to do?

I think there's always something to do. There are things that I've thought about — nature recordings, listening to new people coming up and being able to relate to them. Music is an open sky; it's vast. I wouldn't be so foolish as to ever feel that there isn't more music to be done, because it is out there. And I want to do it.

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Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Thanks again for listening. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

What is there to say about saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins that hasn't already been said when you consider that critics have been writing about him for over 60 years? But there is more to say because over the decades, Sonny Rollins never stopped growing, adding to his sound.

More than once he's stepped away from his adoring audiences for extended sabbaticals. He'd decide he wasn't good enough, take a couple of years off to practice and study, and come back when he felt ready. He's taking some time off again now, but that may be due more to the fact that he's 83-years-old than a desire to rethink his music.

In the meantime, Rollins has been leaking some live recordings for a series he calls "Road Shows." Volume 3 comes out on Tuesday. Tell me, does this sound like a guy in his 80s?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: I talked with Sonny Rollins earlier this week and I asked him why he's opting to release these live albums rather than working on something new.

SONNY ROLLINS: Well, I got afraid of the recording studio, you know, I get a phobia about the lights, camera, action. And a lot of people tell me that in person with the audience and the ambiance, people tell me, well, gee, I like you better when you're live, Sonny, than I do on record.

So I said, OK, that's easy. I've got a lot of live performances and I can pick and choose, and put some out, which was not so easy actually. I'm very strict on myself. I don't like listening to myself. You know, I'm not a guy that goes home and puts on a Sonny Rollins record, you know. So it's sort of--picking and choosing, therefore, can be quite excruciating.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: I want to talk about one of the tracks on a new release on "Road Shows Volume 3," the song called "Patanjali." It's a new composition, or at least this is the first, I think, we've heard of it here, and that's the name of the great Hindu philosopher of yoga.

ROLLINS: That's correct.

RATH: And you studied Indian philosophy and yoga in India. I can see how yoga with its emphasis on breathing could be even useful on a technical level for a saxophonist. What has yoga brought to you, brought to your playing?

ROLLINS: Well, you know, it's the concentration level. And a lot of people think of yoga as the exercises, which is one form of yoga, hatha yoga. There are four other main forms of yoga, and they are more contemplative, introspective, meditational.

You see, the thing is this. When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. So I don't want to think, overtly think about anything, because you can't think and play at the same time. Believe me, I've tried it. You can't do it. It can't, it goes by too fast in the act of improvising.

So when you're into yoga and when you're into improvisation, you want to reach that level, that other level.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: When you went to India, you took, I guess, sort of a sabbatical from playing and from recording. What was it that triggered you to sort of reach out in these other directions in that way?

ROLLINS: Well, I was into many things. I was into Rosicrucianism, I studied Buddhism, Kabbalah, even. I was into really those philosophies of life, as were some of my colleagues. We were trying to find a way to express life through our improvisations. The music has got to mean something. Now, this a beautiful thing about music. I'm sure you understand that.

Music means something besides just the surface melodies and blah, blah, blah. Jazz improvisation is supposed to be the highest form of communication, and getting that to the people is our job as musicians. You know, I'm not supposed to be playing. The music is supposed to be playing me. I'm just supposed to be standing there with the horn moving my fingers. The music is supposed to be coming through me. That's when it's really happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: My guest is saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins. His latest album is called "Road Shows Volume 3." I want to ask you, this is something I read on the Internet, so maybe it's not true. But is this true, that it was a Frank Sinatra concert that was a very key early inspiration for you?

ROLLINS: Well, I was a big fan of Frank Sinatra's and this was in the '40s. You know, they decided to try to have a school integration way back then. There was an Italian neighborhood, and of course we lived up on Washington Heights in a mainly minority neighborhood.

Anyway, we came there and of course it was a little bit of, you know, oh, who are these guys? Wow, they're coming into our neighborhood, blah, blah, you know, just human nature. But at any rate, Frank Sinatra came down to our school and he did a concert. And he also preached to the kids that we're not supposed to be fighting each other.

Of course, he was a god in the Italian neighborhood, and as I said, he was a musical hero to me as well. And what he did then was beyond music.

RATH: You talk about the political situation at that time, and I think about so much of your music that has heavy political overtones, things like, you know, the "Freedom Suite."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROLLINS: I grew up with a very, very strong grandmother who was an activist, political activist. She used to take me with her on some of these marches. You know, we used to march for the Scottsboro Boys and Paul Robeson in and all of these progressive causes. So I grew up with that.

You know, it wasn't anything strange for me to do the "Freedom Suite," because it was, you know, I believe in equality. I realize it's not going to happen in many ways, maybe never. But that's not the point. I believe that it should happen, so I expressed it through my way of communicating to people, my music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: It's hard to think of anything you haven't accomplished in terms of music, but is there something else out there that you still want to do that you haven't done?

ROLLINS: Well, I know there's always something to do. There's always things that I've thought about - nature recordings, and listening to new people coming up, these young people, and being able to relate to them.

So music is an open sky, it's vast. I would never say, well, gee, I've done it and it's up. No, no way. I wouldn't be so foolish as to ever feel that there isn't more music to be done, because it is out there and I want to do it.

RATH: That's Sonny Rollins. The latest in his "Road Shows" series comes on Tuesday. Sonny Rollins, thank you for all of the great music over the years. I can't thank you enough.

ROLLINS: Well, it's been a pleasure and I'm very happy that I made a fan along the way.

RATH: To say the least.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for Weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And follow us on Twitter @NPRWATC.

Tomorrow, the entire state of California, all 163,000 square miles is in a state of drought. And as the land dries out, it creates more fuel for wild fires.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: With the drought that we've had last year into this year, the fields are ready. They're susceptible to burn, and it's not just the light, flashy fields, those grasses. It's the thicker, older brush as well.

RATH: People who live and work in wildfire country have always known the danger. But things seem to be getting worse.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Well, as the years go on, it gets scarier and scarier, I think. You know, this is our life. This is everything we have.

RATH: We'll have that story tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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