The Highest We Can Go

Saxophone Colossus Sonny Rollins Comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall.

By Charles Donelan

Sonny-Rollins2.jpgTenor saxophone legend Sonny Rollins will play Campbell Hall on Sunday, October 22. His latest album, and his first studio recording in five years, Sonny, Please, is available now as a digital download on his Web site,, and is forthcoming with Universal on iTunes and as a traditional CD. Rollins spoke with me recently from his home in New York.

You’ve been called the greatest living improviser. How important is improvisation to you? Improvisation is everything to me. It’s the zenith of jazz as an art form. I respect composing and arranging — they’re the ways music is presented, and they make improvisation possible. But the truly meaningful solo — deep, honest, and in the moment — that is the highest we can go. (Pause.) Oh god, that is going to sound so self-aggrandizing.

I think it’s okay coming from you. Thanks; I just heard myself for a second there, you know?

Is improvisation important outside of music? Outside of music? You would have to delineate the areas you are referring to.

In politics things don’t always go as planned, so you have to improvise. In romance, it’s never by the book. That’s true. You do have to be able to think on your feet in love — you’ve got that right. (Laughs.) Politics though, I’d hate to compare music to politics; that’s a painful comparison.

Agreed. Do you consider yourself a political person? Very! I am a very political person and always have been. My grandmother was quite the activist, and we all had it. It was handed down. I am a part of it — the whole civil rights era — and it is a part of me. (Pause.) But am I political today in that same way? Maybe not. It has changed; politics have become more spiritual and philosophical for me. I now see politics from a larger perspective, as evidence of a particular moment in the evolution of human life on this earth. It doesn’t really work, the political process right now, but you can watch it and you can learn from it.

Are there memories that inspire you? Are there moments that you go back to for inspiration? I’ve been very fortunate in my career, and I have had a lot of great moments, especially because I have worked with so many great musicians. But this question, it’s interesting, because for me, when I draw on my life for inspiration — which I always do — I really try to draw on the whole thing, every time. It’s not specific, but it could be, because literally everything is in it. I believe that I am capable of drawing on my whole life when I perform because I know that it is who I am, and when I think of it, that’s just what it is — everything. This question’s related to another one I get all the time.

What’s that? Oh, people ask me what I think about when I play. I tell them, “nothing.” It’s like I make my mind blank. If I have done my homework and got that down, the music can play itself. It should be going by too fast for me to think about it. I learn it, practice it, and analyze it, but the rest I have to leave to the moment. It’s like I don’t want to think about it at that point.

I see. Does that make for any pressure? Oh yes, I can get quite nervous before a show. Especially the big outdoor shows I do every summer in Manhattan. It’s beyond gratifying that so many people come out, but those are tough. My own expectations for myself are high, and I don’t want to let down all those people. It puts a burden on me. I need it to be special, so I put a lot into making it go right.

I know those shows. They’re usually at Damrosch Park, near the Lincoln Center, right? You know those shows?

Yes, I have been to quite a few. It seems like everyone in New York City shows up for those shows. That’s great — you’re making my night. I did one this year, on August 28.

For a lot of people, those shows are the first stop on a pretty wild night. It’s kind of a tradition — to go to the free Sonny Rollins concert and then stay out all night. So don’t be too worried about an overly critical audience there. That’s too good. I see what you’re saying — folks going out afterward.

Yes, they do. That does make it a bit better, knowing that. (Laughs.)

Do you listen to contemporary music at all? I really don’t. Music is so intense and so constant in my mind that I can’t relax with the radio on. I would be up all night with these tunes in my head. Music is always running in my head, and at this point I prefer to keep the music I love and that I am working on in there.

Will we ever see another age of heroic popular instrumentalists like we did when you and Miles Davis and John Coltrane were in your primes? Well, what you are really asking is will we ever have another golden age of jazz, to which I would say, jazz is eternal.

I agree, and jazz is everywhere these days, but not quite in the same way as in the 1950s and ’60s. Well, okay, there was actually a golden age of jazz, or maybe even more than one. I’ll grant you that. But still, jazz is always contemporary. That’s its essence. Jazz is as fresh as the next morning. How did you get the title for the new record, Sonny, Please? It’s the name of one of the songs. Sometimes I work on songs for a while before they get titles. They’re established as tunes, but they don’t have names yet. This one was going on namelessly a little longer than most, and I was kind of obsessing about it, brainstorming all these names, and none of them really fit. Finally, my wife just got fed up with it and said, “Sonny, please!” (Laughs.) And I said, you know, that’s a good title. And she just looked at me, but I used it.

I thought it was something to do with your wife. Oh, yes.

Thank you, Sonny. It has been great fun talking with you. Thank you. I enjoyed it, too.

4•1•1 Sonny Rollins plays UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Sunday, October 22 at 7 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535 or go to

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