The Ongoing Improvement of Sonny Rollins

Chatting with the Saxophone Colossus, who still insists music can help

Isn't there a deep irony to your attitude, given the fact that, since your teens, you've made recordings that many fans consider to be sacred jazz texts? On the surface, I'd have to say it is a contradiction. But life is full of contradictions. I do agree it's great to have records. I can listen to great music I would never have heard or music I want to hear again. On the other hand, the more you capture something, you know, like as a real-world hard copy, or whatever we call it these days, the more you take away from it.

Well, then forgive me if I dwell on recordings a bit more. Along with iconic status in jazz sometimes comes a certain complacency on the part of critics. Were you at all surprised by the critical affection showered on you with your last few releases? Not at all. I've been working toward each achievement my whole life. I still practice every day. I cannot play rote—I don't have that facility, really. But I don't want to, either. And, thankfully, I don't have to attempt it, because I have a form that demands improvisation. So my life can't be circumscribed by something I did 20 years ago or played 50 years ago. It's impossible. I'm still in the middle of my quest, getting closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm hopefully getting better—I'm still trying to improve.

Does it pain you that the lessons learned nine years ago in Downtown Manhattan appear, perhaps, lost? That's lamentable. I knew it wouldn't last, but it was great while it did. I don't want to get too metaphysical now, but maybe this world is meant to be an imperfect place. At a certain point, you have to accept that, and it's fine.

Sonny Rollins plays the Beacon Theatre Friday, September 10,, with his working group plus special guests—guitarist Jim Hall, bassist Christian McBride, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. On September 14, Rollins will participate in a talk about the new book Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins, along with author Bob Blumenthal and photographer John Abbott, at the Tribeca Barnes & Noble.

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