Sonny Rollins, the "Saxophone Colossus," Turns 81

By , Columnist

Any short list of candidates for the fictional title of “world’s greatest living jazz musician” would have to include tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins—who turns 81 today—directly at the top.

Even in his ninth decade, Rollins continues to execute the impossible — shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire over long durations with his trademark voice, gruff, burnished, and impassioned. As I wrote a few years ago, Rollins "seems to have reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary."

854.jpgPerhaps it’s just coincidence that the Kennedy Center today announced that Rollins—along with singer Barbara Cook, singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and actress Meryl Streep—is a 2011 Kennedy Center Honoree for having "contributed significantly to the cultural life of our nation and the world." The December 3rd gala at which he will accept the award will mark the second such occasion this year in the nation’s capital, following his presence in March at the National Medal of the Arts ceremony.

Several years ago, Rollins established an imprint label, Doxy, which, in conjunction with EmArcy, releases Road Shows, Volume 2 on September 13. It’s the second installment of a projected multi-disc release on which he cherrypicks from his archive of privately recorded concerts, at which, as his fans know, he ascends to Olympian heights of invention that are difficult for him to scale in the isolated environment of the recording studio.

The disc includes four performances from a highly publicized October 2010 concert at New York’s Beacon Theatre on which Rollins, alternating between his regular rhythm section and the all-star tandem of Christian McBride on bass and Roy Haynes on drums, dialogued at various points with trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Jim Hall, and the paradigm shifting alto saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman. Like Volume 1, it’s an instant classic, and a major addition to the jazz canon.

855.jpgHe’ll support the release over the next two months with a dozen concerts, including three appearances in California—the Monterey Jazz Festival on September 18, Royce Hall in Los Angeles on September 22, and the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa on September 25—as well as shows on October 10 at the Kennedy Center and October 14 at Nashville’s  Schermerhorn Symphony Center, before embarking on a leisurely eight-city European tour from late October until just before Thanksgiving.

Undoubtedly, he’ll approach each event with an attitude that he expressed to me in 2000: "If I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend," Rollins said. "Or an icon, which is even worse. When I come out on the stage, it can't be, 'well, okay, he's an icon, folks,’ and that's it, goodnight. I mean, I've got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall. I don't like to take money when I don't earn it, and I don't like people to be disappointed when they come to see me."

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Ted Panken writes about jazz and creative music for DownBeat, Jazziz, and many other outlets; he broadcast it from 1985 to 2008 on WKCR. He recently launched a blog called Today Is The Question.

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