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Music to Pour Over IV

September 9, 2011

Photo by John Abbott

Sonny Rollins celebrated his 81st birthday this week with a bang: He raked in coast-to-coast raves for his fantastic new live recording, Road Shows, Vol. 2 (out Sept. 13), and was named a recipient of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors. Here are some of his greatest hits from interviews I did with him for the Chicago Sun-Times, one when he was in the reflective state of approaching 60 and the other when he just past 70:

Sonny the notorious self-critic: “One time, I might have thought of it as a kind of curse. But now as I look back, I’m happy that I’m the kind of person who was wanting in some musical way. Not being satisfied with whatever I was doing, I was always practicing. That has turned out to be a wonderful thing because I’m still very much engaged in trying to do some things which I don’t feel I have really accomplished yet in terms of my instrument and my composing and all this stuff.”

Sonny the supreme melodist: “I have the hope that a melody, any piece of music, can perform miracles. Years ago, Coltrane and myself used to feel that, boy, we were going to be able to turn the world around. We believed we could change the way people thought through music. That didn’t happen, but I still have faith in the power of music, in old songs, strong melodies, strong playing.”

Sonny the Lester Young fan: “It was about five or six in the morning and there was this club on 63rd and I think Cottage Grove [on Chicago's South Side], and it was one of those places that had music 24 hours a day. There on the bandstand – you could look right in the window and see it – Lester was blowing with some cats. It was great seeing him play anytime, but this really struck a bell in me. I mean, if a guy has a nine to five job, he goes home, goes to sleep, goes to bed. Seeing Lester playing at that hour told me that music was forever. It struck a bell because that’s the way I wanted to be. That’s the way I think I am.”

Sonny the Charlie Parker acolyte: “Long after he died, I would sort of think about him when I went to do a job. When things didn’t come out the way I wanted, I would draw on his image and invoke his spirit and it would give me strength. I came to terms with his death on an emotional level by rationalizing that he was too good a person to be in the world. He was really a beautiful human being.”

Sonny the road show man: “Sometimes when I perform, I sort of have a set pattern. I include certain songs because people respond to them, like ‘Flying Home’ with Lionel Hampton. When you play as many shows as we do, you have to follow a certain plan. But sometimes I wonder whether I should be playing not so set a show. I mean, things are never really set – if you hear me three nights in a row, I’m gonna sound different every night. This is the bane of my existence and the strong point, living on the edge. But I worry about falling into patterns I should avoid. I’m always concerned with getting the most out of myself. The mere suggestion I might not be unnerves me.”

Sonny the greatest living improviser: “When I’m soloing, I’m striving for a state of blankness. I don’t want to have to think. I want it so my horn just responds to what I’m feeling. I practice a lot, of course, so all the tools are in place. But it’s only when the subconscious part takes over that I’m really doing what I set out to do.”

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