Good article in today’s Times on a true music legend. One of the few jazz greats still with us and still going strong. The last time I saw Sonny perform was at the summer stage in Lincoln Center. It was a year before 9-11.
Saxophone Colossus Strides Into a New Life
By NATE CHINEN
GERMANTOWN, N.Y. — Until recently, Sonny Rollins practiced his tenor saxophone in a cottage studio a short, loping distance from his house here, on the rustic property he and his wife, Lucille, bought nearly 35 years ago. Mr. Rollins, who has long been lionized, partly for his intense, solitary practicing — or woodshedding, in jazz argot — would often work in the cottage past nightfall. At the house, his wife would turn on the porch light so he could find his way back through the dark.
Lucille Rollins died not quite two years ago, and Mr. Rollins initially turned to his regimen for solace. “So I came out here a few times,” he said in his studio one recent afternoon, “and then I looked, and there was no light on the porch. It just kind of highlighted that, well, there’s nobody there now.” These days, he practices in the house.
Mr. Rollins has faced many more changes since the death of his wife, who scrupulously managed his business affairs for more than 30 years. Last year he fulfilled his recording contract with Milestone, and instead of renewing it, he formed his own label, Doxy Records, through which he is releasing his strongest studio album in a decade or more, “Sonny, Please.” And while the album has been licensed to Universal, which plans to distribute a digital version next month and a CD in January, it has quietly been available for several months, along with other merchandise and free audio and video clips, at sonnyrollins.com. For Mr. Rollins, who turned 76 six weeks ago, this has all been new terrain.
As an elder statesman, Mr. Rollins is aware of the emblematic impact of his decision to abandon the traditional recording-industry model, though he plays down that impact. “This is where the business is going,” he said. “I hate technology myself, but that aside, one of the good things technology has done is allowed guys to use the Internet and sell their own product. I think this is inevitable.”
A certain amount of faith accompanies that claim, given that Mr. Rollins does not own a computer. He consented to a Web site at the urging of the trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew and a longtime member of his band. Through the recommendation of Terri Hinte, the former director of publicity at Fantasy, Milestone’s parent company, Mr. Anderson enlisted as Web producer an entrepreneur, Bret Primack, who first met Mr. Rollins in the 1970’s.
Mr. Primack unveiled sonnyrollins.com on Mr. Rollins’s 75th birthday; he says the site has logged 250,000 visitors from 95 countries. Last month Mr. Primack assembled some streaming video clips of Mr. Rollins in concert, provided by a collector, Hal Miller. (They were up for one week, but most of them can still be found on YouTube.) Periodically Mr. Primack sends Mr. Rollins the comments from his guest book, which Mr. Anderson credits with helping to ease his grief.
Still, seclusion suits Mr. Rollins, who moved more than 100 miles north of New York City, he said, “because Lucille and I wanted to be away from people.” Answering a knock at the door of his house, he wore a hooded sweatshirt; a radio inside blared baseball playoff chatter. (A Yankees fan during his youth in Harlem, Mr. Rollins grew disillusioned some years ago with what he called “the mercenary nature of the team,” and has since rooted for the Mets.)
For the brief walk from the house to the cottage — past an actual woodshed, appropriately enough — Mr. Rollins pulled on snow boots and a ski jacket, though it was a warm and cloudless day.
Mr. Rollins stomachs but does not savor his extramusical duties. “Releasing this record and dealing with lawyers and this whole thing, that’s a very difficult thing that I have had to do,” he said. He has also had to approve decisions regarding concerts and promotions. “So that brings me into the picture more than I’d want to be,” he said, “but there’s no choice.”
He was painting a picture in stark contrast to what he wistfully remembered as “a perfect existence,” in which Mrs. Rollins handled everything but the music. Partly to fill that void, Mr. Rollins has gathered an inner circle of Mr. Anderson, Ms. Hinte and Mr. Primack. (His agent, Ted Kurland, occupies a concentric outer circle, along with his recording engineer, Richard Corsello, and his tour manager, Peter Downey.)
At times this team has knowingly crossed boundaries established by Mrs. Rollins. The most prominent example is “Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert,” the album with which Mr. Rollins fulfilled his obligation last year to Milestone and the Concord Music Group, which acquired Fantasy in 2004. The album was a bootleg: the man who recorded it, an avid jazz collector named Carl Smith, had previously offered it to the label at no charge. But Mrs. Rollins would brook no exception to her policy of condemning illicit taping.
“Lucille was adamant about shutting that door and keeping it shut,” Ms. Hinte said, “and Sonny was not.”
When the album was finally issued, its back story — involving a concert in Boston just four days after Mr. Rollins had evacuated his apartment near the World Trade Center — helped make it a success. Mr. Rollins was voted artist of the year in two critics’ polls, and he won a Grammy Award, only the second of his career.
“Sonny, Please,” recorded in a New York studio one month after Mr. Rollins and his band had finished a Japanese tour, has a less dramatic provenance. (Its title is derived from an expression of exasperation frequently used by Mrs. Rollins.) But it is a noteworthy achievement, at least to anyone intimately acquainted with Mr. Rollins’s working habits.
“He’s the foremost living example of someone who is always much too hard on themselves in the studio,” said Orrin Keepnews, who produced many of Mr. Rollins’s records over the years, beginning in the mid-1950’s. “When I worked with Sonny,” Mr. Keepnews said from his home near Berkeley, Calif., “he refused to get involved with mixing. As intensely self-critical as he is, he has obviously crossed into an area where he can handle that now, which is a big step.”
Mr. Rollins still describes listening to his own playing as “an excruciating experience.” But because his wife is gone, and he trusts no one else to edit his albums, the task is his. While recording “Sonny, Please,” he went into the engineer’s booth to listen to playbacks, something he had rarely done before.
Of course, he had some gentle encouragement. “We were all trying to make this record more comfortable for him,” said Mr. Anderson, who is credited as the album’s producer; he was referring to the band, which also comprises the bassist Bob Cranshaw, the guitarist Bobby Broom, the drummer Steve Jordan and the percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. “We’re committed to making the music the best vehicle for Sonny to be able to express himself. A lot of critics say that the band is just there for Sonny, and that’s true: we’re there for Sonny.”
Viewed from one perspective, that’s a purely comforting thought; from another, it might seem terribly lonely. Mr. Rollins suggested that it might be both.
“When I play, I have a lot of responsibility,” he said. “The band has to sound good, and I’ve got to sort of bring the band together by what I do.” He admitted to feeling an increasing burden of expectation over the years, partly self-inflicted and partly a product of his stature.
It is a heavy load for any artist, even if someone else programs his Web site. Thankfully there exists that elusive, unforced moment, in the course of some pressing improvisation, when inspiration strikes, and the weight, however briefly, disappears.
“Oh, sure,” Mr. Rollins said, brightening at the thought of that possibility. “If something like that happens, everything is fine.”