The promotion of a new Rollins compilation CD, Silver City, was my “in” for this interview at his home in Germantown, New York, on August 30, 1996. The interview was recorded on cassette in his practice barn, with tie-clip microphones, which picked up the panting of his two German shepherds, one at each knee. An edited version was aired on WKCR-FM soon afterwards. Before knocking on the barn door, I sat outside for a few minutes listening to him practicing.
Evan Spring: I guess you could start and just talk about this compilation, how the idea came together, and why you decided to come out with it now.
Sonny Rollins: Well, it actually was an idea that was put forth by this journalist, Gary Giddins, and he had remarked about it that I had been with this company for 25 years, which nobody really – I didn’t really think about it. I mean, time goes so fast. So the fellow at the company said, “Oh yeah, there’s 25 years, so let’s put out a double CD.” Sort of a “best of”-type thing, you know, for 25 years. So that’s what it is.
ES: And did Gary Giddins help select any of the material?
SR: He did, in his original compilation he did. He did make some suggestions and we used a lot of his things that he liked.
ES: But did you have to go and listen carefully to everything you’ve done in the last 25 years?
SR: Not everything I’d done, we listened to sort of the ones from memory that I thought might be appropriate. And I’m not a big fan of listening to my own music. I’m very critical of myself, so that would have been torture, to have to listen to everything I did 25 years ago. So, you know, I’m always saying well, we should’ve did this there, we should’ve made this end shorter, this kind of stuff, so that would have been completely too much. But I had a sort of a vague idea of the things which might be the best, you know. So those things were chosen and then we’d listen to those when we were remastering it. Everything here is remastered which is possible to remaster. So in maybe the final cuts, we did go through everything which we were going to use and listen to it at that time.
ES: Anyone who’s heard their own voice on tape can relate to what you’re saying about it being painful just to listen to old recordings. And obviously, for someone like you there’s much more at stake. But even if it is like torture, like you say, maybe it could still be a valuable learning process to listen to your old recordings.
SR: It is a valuable learning process and it’s one of those things which I have to take the downside, which I know it is, a lot of times I know there’s a lot of things. Because after all, a person who’s been around as long as I have, you forget a lot of stuff that you’ve played, you forget a lot. So it is valuable to listen to yourself and kind of keep up with what you did and know where you’re at and all that stuff. But I have to forgo that unfortunately. It’s just too much hassle for me to kind of listen to myself, you know.
ES: Now the title Silver City, is that a silver anniversary?
SR: It refers to silver anniversary and also the title of a song I wrote some years ago called “Silver City,” which will be in the compilation.
ES: Now, these are all songs which you recorded for Milestone Records, so your relationship with them started I think in 1971.
SR: Something like that, right.
ES: And I’m wondering – musically you have 25 years then outlined, ending a few years where you hadn’t recorded. Is there any way to musically periodize those 25 years? When you think of those 25 years together as a separate phase in your career, does that make any sense, to periodize those 25 years?
SR: Um, not really, because from the time I came back to recording I didn’t take any, really, hiatuses, which I had done in my previous career; I’d taken some hiatuses. But from the time I was with – it was originally Audio Fidelity, then Milestone bought it, so it was called Milestone. So from then until the present time I really have been recording on a constant basis. Not on a frequent frequent basis, but constantly, you know, I mean maybe once every 18 months or something like that. So to put this period – no, it wouldn’t really. And also, the compilation is different, we have something from the first album I did, and then we have also something from the last album. So it’s not put on the record in order of as they were recorded. We just put it together, different songs that we thought would program better, you know.
ES: In a way that’s more musical. When it’s done strictly chronologically, sometimes it can seem too pedantic?
SR: Yeah, right. I mean we thought that that was not really necessary.
ES: I guess you recorded the first album for Milestone in 1972, and prior to that hadn’t recorded since 1966? [note: this is the gap between studio recordings; there are live recordings from within that period.]
SR: That I’m not sure. Probably. I think probably there was some period during which I had not recorded.
ES: And how did you know it was time to record again?
SR: When I went back in the studio? Well all this is sort of documented on the album. At that time, Orrin Keepnews was my producer over there, so he writes something in the box set which explains how he thought it would be a good idea if I would record again, and he came to me and all this. So it’s sort of explained, but I think I was about ready to start recording again. I had some very unpleasant run-ins, if you want to put it that way, with some of the people in the recording industry. And I had some records that they said, “Oh well, we can’t sell this,” you know, one of those records I made with one of these people that they didn’t like because they thought it was too far out and all of this stuff. So I had some of these experiences, and in general the record people are very anti-artist, I would say. You know, they’re looking for a bottom line, even in jazz, you know, they’re still looking for bottom line stuff. And the people in the record business are – with some exceptions of course, not everybody, with some exceptions – but as a rule, they’re very, you know, bottom-line oriented, this kind of stuff. Most musicians, most artists, have problems with the business end of things, you know.
ES: So this hiatus in the late sixties is not really similar to your hiatus from 1959 to 1961? Do you think that if there had been favorable conditions with a record company that you probably would have recorded?
SR: Possibly. I’m trying to remember. Around that time I had been on – I sort of was into personal development. So that I had gone to, I’d traveled around the world, different places. And I think I was trying to get away from the music scene, and the music business, and everything like that. So I think that part of my reason for not recording was my own reasons, and I just didn’t really want to get involved in the business at that time. Partly that was it. So I’m trying to remember some of the things, but as I recall, in the late sixties I had traveled to several parts of the world, to the Far East and so on, and was studying different religions and all this stuff, Buddhism and everything, some Zen. Then I was doing a lot of yoga at that time, so I went to India and was living and doing some yoga there with a group. So I was sort of on a spiritual quest, I would say, to find my own place as an individual, not so much as a musician, just as a person. So all of that was happening before I went back to playing. So I think that was happening before Orrin came back and said, “Well why don’t you record?” But I think I was about ready to go back into studio by that time.
ES: And musically, I’m sure it ended up having an effect as well. The most direct example, I guess, would be the way yoga trains your breathing technique and so forth.
SR: I would say so, I’ve been asked this question many times, what effect did my yoga have on my music. I can’t really say that it had a direct effect on my playing. Perhaps like you say, it kept my physical in shape, which is part of what the training is all about anyway, to keep your body in shape. So that’s about all. In keeping myself able to deal with life off of the bandstand, that was mainly what I was involved in at that time. You know, off of the bandstand rather than on the bandstand. But of course, I always had my instrument with me, I had my horn with me everyplace I’d go and everything like that, and I’d play it and everything, but I was into something else. I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of music at that time.
ES: You referred earlier to how you find it a painful process to listen to all of your old records, and you’ve also said at times that you find the very process of recording, as opposed to performing, somewhat painful sometimes. I have a quote here from Orrin Keepnews that you might want to respond to; he says, quote, “If the essence of jazz is improvisation, then the whole concept of recording – freezing a particular moment and calling it definitive – violates that essence. And Sonny, who is the most intuitive musician I’ve ever met as well as the most intellectual, is the musician most acutely aware of that contradiction.”
SR: I would say that that’s probably put better than I could, you know [laughter]. That’s probably how I feel. The in-person experience is always better, because you can sort of just get a lot also from the audience. Your audience gives back a certain electricity, and so you can sort of feed back on that sometimes. So performing live always is preferable to the clinical, you know, atmosphere in the studio.
ES: Now when performing live, do you ever find that you’re thinking maybe just a little bit differently if you know that someone’s recording the concert?
SR: Yeah, I did. Because we did a date for RCA Victor back in ’61, and we were playing that time at the Village Gate. So we had the recording board there and recorded about five or six nights. So we figured we’d just let the board run and everybody would play and it would come out in a very natural way, but unfortunately, knowing that we were recording still kind of interfered. However, eventually we forgot it was there because the greater thing was always being there. That was really the greater of the two elements we were dealing with there. So we ended up finally, we forgot that the recording machine was there. So finally we played as if there weren’t any recording machines. But at first we were a little uptight, even though we were performing live.
ES: Now do you think that when you’re recording, say in a recording studio, is there ever a temptation not to play something, a particular phrase for instance, that’s very daring, or maybe a very challenging thing to do technically on the saxophone, because if you don’t quite get it the way you want it, then it’s going to be frozen in time?
SR: Yes and no, because in a way when I’m playing it’s too difficult for me to think that far ahead, of “Well, I can’t play this, I can’t” – I really don’t think like that because I’m playing too spontaneously. But there are times when I might not make the arrangement of the whole song, I might make it not as adventurous maybe. When I start playing myself, I’m usually into automatic pilot, so I can’t really make these quick judgments. But I may do that sometimes; we may try to approach things in a more conservative way, you know, so there’s an element of truth in that.
ES: Is it possible that in a recoding studio you would have some unique opportunities to perhaps make more intimate statements, or small gestures directed just at a particular musician in your band for instance – whereas if you’re playing like you did just a few weeks ago in Damrosch Park, outdoors at Lincoln Center, that you have to make larger gestures to reach a larger audience? So perhaps in a recording studio, sometimes it’s a unique opportunity in that sense?
SR: Well, you know, that may have been true at one time, but these days recording studios, sometimes they have the instruments isolated. So you really have to have a really astute engineer to make it so that everybody can see each other. Because these days, they isolate the drums, and drums are way over here, he’s behind a big screen, this guy is way over there. So it can be a very, very unnatural operation, you know.
ES: Okay, I have a question about how you feel your sound has developed over the years. And I guess we could start with the tone that you get on tenor saxophone. I guess no one would mistake your tone now from what it was 30 years ago, so maybe you could just describe how you think your tone has changed.
SR: Well, I think – in fact if you listen to this CD, you’ll see from some of the early selections that we chose, you will see the difference in the tone. And so this is 25 years, so even if you go back a little further you’ll see that I was trying to get more of a different tone, I was having more of a rounded tone, sort of. And nowadays I think my tone is more – or was, because I’m also sort of in a fluid stage really. But I think a lot of the stuff since then has been more of a pointed, perhaps more on-the-edge tone, than earlier. And this has a lot to do with the type of music that we’re playing. So the tone has to be part of everything, you know, you can’t isolate the tone and say “Well, how could you play with this tone in this period,” because it’s all of a piece. So my tone is more adapted to the music I’m playing, and in more recent years than earlier, I think was more adapted to that type of music also.
ES: But do you think it’s fair to say that because perhaps you have a wider range of harmonics and overtones and variations of timbre at your disposal, that you can use these variations to develop a solo, the same way you’d use melody or harmony or rhythm to develop a solo, more than you could 30 years ago?
SR: I would think so. Of course I also feel that 30 years ago, I was at the stage I was 30 years ago, which was okay, but I also hope that I’ve amassed some more knowledge, you know, more things to use today. So yeah, there’s more things that I think I can play today, there’s more things that I might try for today, which may benefit by having tone which is more adaptable and not as fixed as, say, my earlier tone might have been, like [the] days of Saxophone Colossus and these things.
ES: Now Chip Stern, who wrote the essay in this collection Silver City that’s going to be released, actually compared your present tone to Coleman Hawkins in the way that it’s developed from your earlier tones. What do you think of that comparison?
SR: Well the thing that I find similar with Coleman Hawkins – who’s, you know, my idol, one of my idols – we both play in sort of a speech-like manner. So probably there’s some correlation between the tone and the style. So it’s quite possible that today, when he hears that, he’s hearing something which is a reflection of the style of Coleman Hawkins, which is a part of me, you know, this was one of my early teachers, my idols, you know.
ES: At this point I wanted to ask if there are any particular tracks on the anthology that you would like to introduce in any way whatsoever [for the forthcoming radio broadcast of this interview]. Maybe just upon hearing a track that was recorded ten or twenty years ago, you just had any particular comment or anything that struck you upon listening to any particular track.
SR: Well, we did a track that everybody liked on it, “Autumn Nocturne.” Now I think that was recorded in person. It was a lot of technical playing on that. I would have liked to actually have done it over, really, because I didn’t think it really came all the way out like I wanted it to. But there was a section in there that I played by myself, sort of a cappella, you know. So I think that was mainly what the cut was maintained for. But in listening to it back – as I said we listened to everything back, I wish less of it had been able to be deleted. But anyway, that’s what I played that night. I think the first part is unique enough that people would like to hear that and there’s something in there which is fairly interesting, so I just have to sacrifice the fact that the whole thing didn’t hang together in certain ways. But I think that the earlier part, the part that I play a cappella, is probably strong enough to maintain it.
ES: Now, I’ve listened to the whole compilation –
SR: Oh, you have, aha [laughter].
ES: I have one of these advance cassette releases, and there are quite a number of your famous cadenzas on there, so did you take part in that decision, to have some of those?
SR: No, we just picked the numbers that we thought would be the best ones, you know. In fact some of them I had forgotten really that we had a cadenza on there. Now that you mention it, as I think back, when we were in the studio putting these all together in a week, there were a few that did have unaccompanied parts to it. So I hope there weren’t too many.
ES: I think there’s about two on each disc.
SR: Okay, that’s not too bad then.
ES: There’s also, I guess, one track on each disc which could be characterized as influenced by the fusion elements that were happening at the time, but perhaps you’re saving some of those for a different compilation, because there is less emphasis, I think, on that style in this compilation.
SR: Well, I’m glad you said that, because I thought that I might be criticized for having too much of that on this compilation. So no, I picked the things that I thought were the strongest performances, regardless of period or whether it was more fusion or into anything. I mean that was not a consideration. It was just the things that I thought were the best-sounding records in general, you know.
ES: In the same Chip Stern essay, you’re quoted talking about making up for some of the physical disadvantages that come when you get older with more mental finesse. And I’m wondering if there is any particular track in the anthology that might demonstrate that, perhaps a solo that you can hear that the young Sonny Rollins would not have played.
SR: Oh, no, that would be sort of impossible for me to analyze. In general, what I meant by that was that as you get older, of course, just physical age, you know, you don’t have as many teeth as you do or you wear your teeth down – you know, horn players have trouble with your teeth, ’cause I guess it’s unnatural to blow a horn for a hundred years. So these things have a certain effect, you know, but I wouldn’t be able to really analyze any more.
ES: You’ve also said that when you start imitating yourself, that that’s the ultimate creative trap. That sounds like a very high standard to set for yourself, and it seems, given the demands of improvisation, that everyone would have to fall back on imitating themselves once in a while. So do you think you were being especially hard on yourself?
SR: Well, maybe. When you improvise, of course, there are certain things that you will fall back on. I remember Ron Carter, the bass player, when asked this question, he would say, “Well there are certain crips.” They call them crips that musicians use, and they always go back to them.
ES: Is that a common term, crip?
SR: It’s sort of among musicians, you know. And I think it refers to when you’re falling back on something when you’re not able to think of anything else – well you know that this is something which you’ve played for a hundred years so you know about it. But this is not really the essence of improvisation. In other words, yes, there are things that I will fall back on, I will use, but it gets beyond that. In other words, it’s inevitable that a person has a musical vocabulary. It’s inevitable that you’re going to use that vocabulary when you’re improvising. So you’re going to hear a person say “if” and “when” in musical terms, has got to use those words during what he’s playing, but they don’t come out exactly the same place and the same way, so they can’t be discerned as really being a repetition, or something which could be seen as being a shortcoming. And in my case, I may use some things, like some quotes. Sometimes, when musicians play we use quotes from “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” or you know some song like that. But that is only to sort of get you into what you’re doing. When I really get into playing, these things are discarded. So these are just things that sometimes you use at the beginning of a solo. And this is when the whole band is playing, it’s not just when I’m playing alone. This could be when everybody’s playing, I mean you may use some of these things just to get into the swing of things, so to speak. But you don’t rely on these things, or these things aren’t the foundation of improvisation, not in any way. And anybody that uses these things, that sort of marks the level of player, because if you hear a guy that kind of plays things that are predictable, well, you know, that puts him at a certain level. I mean, I remember that’s one thing Miles and I would always be talking about it. You know, Miles was always one for that. I’d say “Well how’d you like this guy?” And he said, “Well he’s good but he plays too many clichés.” To me, you know, I agree with this, and a lot of people agree. I mean we avoid clichés like the plague, we try to. So you may use something which might be a cliché to get into the meat of a solo, to get yourself in it, but you avoid it after you get in there. And the better players are not cliché players, you know. As a rule.
ES: In your performances, do you feel as though you have good and bad nights, or do you think you’re more consistent?
SR: Well, I think probably I’m a little more consistent than I was some years ago, particularly since I’ve arranged my life so that I don’t play a concert every week. You know, I sort of arrange my schedule so I’m sort of rested and my energy’s up when I do play. So in that sense, I think my performances are more consistent, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have good nights and bad nights. I mean, you can’t help it. By the very nature of what we’re doing, you’re gonna have good nights and bad nights, you know, because we’re improvising, we’re creating something new every night. So it can’t be cookie-cutter perfect. It’s not gonna be that way, that’s not the type of stuff that I do. Also I want to say in the statement that we were just talking about, cliché players. I’m talking about myself, I’m not a cliché player. I mean there’s certain people that you can characterize as being clichéd, but they’re great players. You know, so I don’t mean to put this on which one is better, or which one is worse, I’m speaking about myself. I’m not a cliché player, but there are people that you may characterize as cliché players, who are very adapted to what they do and deserve to be recognized as great players, no doubt about it.
ES: Maybe a less judgmental term than cliché could just be “craftsmen.” You could speak of a certain soloist as being more of a craftsman instead of expressing themselves in a kind of pure speech the way you do.
SR: Right. Exactly. Although I would hope that I have some craftsmanship in my own work also. I mean, I think a pure player also has to have a certain amount of craftsmanship. But in general, though, they’re people that don’t take a lot of chances, let me put it that way. That might be getting closer to it. So they just more or less play what they know sounds good and something like that.
ES: Now some soloists, I suppose, when they feel that the inspiration isn’t all there, they then use the clichés, as you’re saying, to fall back on, just hoping most of the audience won’t really notice until they feel that their inspiration has come back. And some critics have speculated that when this happens to you, that instead of falling back on those clichés, you’ll almost rather not play anything, or play something that doesn’t necessarily even sound that good, rather than play those clichés. And so even at a time where a critic at least thinks that he hears that the inspiration isn’t quite all there in your playing, that there is something very compelling about it just for that reason.
SR: That might be true. It’s very, very difficult for me to comment on critics because I’ve got a funny relationship with critics. I mean critics sort of have their ideas and so on, and sometimes they’re right, sometimes they’re not right. But what you said might be true. Because I have a relatively light schedule compared to a lot of players, when I play these days, I kind of don’t have to get in this situation where I’m on the stage and I have no inspiration at all, I have no ideas. That used to happen to me a lot more when I was playing maybe six nights a week and things like that, when you get a sort of a overload, you know. That’s how it works for me, it doesn’t necessarily work like that for other people. Most musicians thrive on as much work as possible; I don’t. Maybe my schedule can be increased a little bit; in fact I’ve been thinking about that. But as a rule if I’m playing too much, then you get to the point where, you know, these negative things happen. And so critics might say, “Oh well gee, he didn’t know what to play” or something; now that doesn’t happen. I mean, now, when I go on the stage for a concert, I have more music coming out of me than I can get out in that period of time. So that wouldn’t be my problem now. It might have been at one time when someone heard me some years ago. That’s not true for me now.
ES: Gary Giddins, a critic for the Village Voice, once referred to one of your concerts as a “psychodrama.” Do you ever still find it scary to perform, and afterwards, do you find it emotionally exhausting?
SR: Well, because everything I do is spontaneous, one could say it’s a psychodrama, right, because it’s really happening at the moment, to as much a degree as possible. It can be exhausting, the age factor comes into it again. Now if I play a concert I may be a little more fatigued than I would have been twenty years ago. Which is true now, even when I’m practicing at home in my studio, I can’t practice for ten hours. I used to be able to practice all day without a thing. So that has something to do with it. Generally speaking, when I do a concert performance, I’m more exhilarated after than I am before, I mean there’s no doubt about it. Except if the show was a complete disaster, you know. And even then, I’m exhilarated in a different way. But the act of playing is more exhilarating than it is making me fatigued.
ES: I guess there’s no way really to describe the state of mind you get in when you reach that zone that you’ve called “close to pure speech,” maybe after twenty choruses of a solo. But I’m wondering if there’s any way to describe what’s going through your mind if anything. Also, I once remember reading that you sometimes actually see yourself from above, as though you’re viewing yourself from the outside somehow.
SR: Well, I wouldn’t say that happens sometimes. That happened on one particular occasion, you know, way back a long time ago when I might have been slightly under the influence of alcohol or something, slightly, so that I was sort of – that’s not something that happens all the time, you know. So that was more the exception rather than the rule. Other than that, you know there’s a book out about Zen and archery, I’m sure you’ve heard about the Zen and archery. But anyway, the point is this: In Zen, you have the bow and arrow, you’re aiming for a target. Well, what the whole idea of Zen is is that the guy that’s shooting the bow and the target becomes one. So it’s something like when I play – you get to a state where you’re not thinking about pulling or aiming, you know, you’re not thinking about that. I mean, you and the target become one, you see. And this is something like what happens when an improviser is playing, and – I’ll just speak for myself, you know, as playing at my top level. Then, I’m not thinking about anything. My mind is blank, to what I can discern now, there’s nothing going on. I’m not thinking about, “Well gee, should I play the C chord here or should I play an F sharp,” I mean I’m not thinking about that. I’m not thinking about anything. I’m not thinking about a girl down in the front seat with nice legs and all that. All those things can distract you, but I’m not thinking about anything. You know, I’m past the point of thinking, it’s happening. The thing itself is happening, which is similar to, like, the Zen and the archery. The guy is not really aiming anymore. The whole process takes over, and you just shoot, you know.
ES: And the saxophone itself also becomes like an appendage of your body?
SR: Oh, yeah, definitely, yeah.
ES: Some improvisers do describe, if not thinking about a girl’s legs or any particular chord or note, they do describe sometimes seeing patterns, or people dancing, or even certain colors. So there might be things that aren’t necessarily sort of –
ES: – not a kind of rational thought, but perhaps there are images or things that do go through your mind, or would you still characterize it as blankness?
SR: Well, it may be, but I don’t even see anything like that. I don’t see any people dancing, I don’t see any colors, or anything. I’m sort of completely in a subconscious state. So I’m not conscious of anything of a material nature.
[Cassette is flipped over]
ES: Your nephew Clifton Anderson joined the group in 1984, for an album called Sunny Days, Starry Nights, and he’s been with your group ever since. Do you feel like that was a breakthrough album in any sense?
SR: I think that was probably – I don’t know if we would characterize it as a breakthrough album. I mean, I think it was a well-received album. I’m generally not too pleased with all of my offerings, I would say that that was better than some of the others ones that we had done up to that time.
ES: How has Clifton Anderson’s presence helped and stabilized the group?
SR: Well Clifton, as you know, I bought him his first trombone as a little boy. And he really loves music and he’s a great musician. Actually he’s got his own CD coming out very shortly. And he has helped actually in the group, because he has helped to undergird what I’m trying to do, insofar as the melodies and some harmonies, so that things can be a little more – well I don’t want to say “conventional-sounding” because that’s not what I mean. But by having another horn, it sort of takes off a lot of the edge that would be there if I was playing without another instrument, you know. And sometimes that’s good to me to have somebody there to state melodies and help me. And of course the soloing is good, that gives me a chance to also catch my breath while he’s soloing. So that’s a point of view, you know, it’s been a good relationship.
ES: So perhaps you have more freedom in your improvisations and also in how you state the melodies when you have that nice, warm trombone sound stating things very clearly as support.
SR: I think so, right.
ES: And of course he’s a great soloist in his own right.
SR: Right, exactly.
ES: Why have you chosen to perform with an extra percussionist in most of your performances?
SR: Well, actually, I like percussion, I like rhythm. I’ve always used a lot of rhythm or used very rhythmic drummers, of course – that’s what drumming is all about, rhythm. But I like having the extra added dimension of sometimes a conga drum, especially. There was a period when I wasn’t using any trap drummers at all, and I was just using this fellow that’s with me now, you know we had a very interesting-sounding group [groove?] without the trap drums. However, it was very, very hard on myself and some of the other people, you know, the other rhythm section. So it’s a good sound, it’s a sound which I can utilize. Some years ago I made a duo record with this fellow Candido, who’s a very fine percussionist. So I’d like to have that sound, I like any kind of rhythmic sound like that, you know, it’s good for me. And so in using him in the band, I felt that also would make the presentation more amenable to everybody, and everybody would like it. It would feel good, and I’d have more to play on. You know, I’d be able to use that to help me to play more, in other words. That’s why I got him. If people want me to play more – me to play better, that’s what I should say, not more, but play better. By his being there, it was my intention that that would give me an opportunity to maybe hear more things, rest a little bit more, be able to have a more propulsive rhythm section and so on. Hence, it would make me be able to play better myself, you know.
ES: Your band also is one of the few jazz groups nowadays to have an electric bassist, and of course there are purists and nostalgists and so on who just like the sound of the acoustic bass, the wood sound.
SR: Right, right.
ES: Why do you have the electric bass, what do you think that gives you?
SR: Well, I like the wood sound also. Actually, Bob Cranshaw has been with me off and on for a long time. He is really an upright player, so when he started playing the electric bass with the band some time ago, when he first – he had an injury, in fact, and he couldn’t play the upright for a while. I didn’t mind it because his concept was like a upright bass, okay? Now as far as the sound is concerned, the decay time of the electric bass is quicker, you know. And I sort of got used to that in my head, you know, the quick beat, right-on-the-beat sound. And I’d say it was just a personal decision, but again, to me it’s not a big thing for me, that’s why I’m doing it. People listening, of course, and especially a lot of critics, you know – I still get criticized for, “Well gee, why doesn’t he have an upright bass?” Well that’s because in my formative years, in my earlier years when I started out, everybody was playing with an upright bass. So people would sort of think, well that’s a classic sound. Which is fine, I mean I have no problem with that. And I still like the upright bass, it’s a beautiful instrument. But I got used to this quick sound of the decay sound of the beat which you get with electric guitar. So to me it’s always the man, not the instrument, but people will argue with that that have to listen to it.
ES: I’m wondering if there’s any way in which the instrumentation, or the roles played by each member of the group, if there is some way where their freedom is, in some way, restricted – they stick close to the harmony or beat in some way, and that somehow liberates you to catapult your solos in a way that you wouldn’t be able to if everyone was soloing as freely. The extreme example would be a free jazz situation, where everybody is free to create melody and solo as much as they want. I’m wondering if there is some way, through the instrumentation and through the role that each musician plays in the group, where you want them to stick close to the beat and the harmony and so on, that liberates you, as a soloist, maybe to catapult to new heights because you know that the harmony and the beat –
SR: That’s sort of my device, right?
ES: Yeah. I’m wondering whether you think in those terms at all.
SR: Well, that’s sort of how I look of it myself, especially the type of music that we’re playing. In other words, we’re playing chordal time music, so that everything has a beginning and, ostensibly, an ending. So that’s different than playing feeling-type of music, where it just goes by phrases and whatever phrase you want to put in there, it doesn’t matter. You know, whatever chords you want to play, doesn’t matter. Now, within the confines of the type of music that we’re playing, like we’re playing a melody, “I Should Care,” that song, or something. Within the confines of that song, then we can do a lot of things, but we’re still playing that song. That’s sort of the type of music that we’re playing today with this group that you’re hearing now. Now, that being said, there are times when we’re playing together, when Clifton and I are soloing together at the same time. You might not hear us doing that, because you don’t do it all the time. Also, there are certain things that we do which I’ve been meaning to start doing more, when we sort of extend a note for a long time, then everybody just starts playing. In a way, it gets into sort of a free element, which is very invigorating at times. Now, it works, I think, because it’s coming from the other element with more structure, and then we’re going into the free element at the end. So they work very well together. Whether I could start out a song by strictly going into a free element might be difficult to do, at least with the band that I have now and with the way I’m thinking now and with the repertoire that we’re using now. But with the repertoire we are using now, there have been ways that we have stepped over into a more free-form element, by a device that we use sometimes when we extend a note at the end of a song, for instance, through circular breathing. And that way, everybody begins playing. I mean they have to, because then the song is actually over. And then at times we’ve moved into a free element, you know. That’s interesting and I’ve been meaning to do more of it in the future, you know.
ES: Is this what you refer to as “phrase music”?
SR: That would come under the realm of phrase music, yeah.
ES: So you might say that this kind of freedom almost serves the same function as form, because it serves as an interlude or part of a piece, or a part of building the whole structure.
SR: In my case it would, yeah, because I wouldn’t do that alone. I wouldn’t make a complete piece just under that approach. I like to have form, you know, I mean a structure. And then depart from that structure. I don’t like to depart and then, in that, try to find a structure. I mean, that’s just the way I find I’m able to use all of the knowledge and things that I’ve gotten in all the years I’ve been playing. I find that method more conducive for me, you know. Which is why I play a lot of standards.
ES: You’ve also said that you consider yourself more of a linear than a vertical player.
SR: Well, when I first started playing, everybody was more into bebop playing when we came up, and so we were more concentrated on chords, and everybody was playing more chords, you know. Nowadays when I play – for instance, a standard or any melody, original melodies, okay. This is something which I tell when I get new rhythm sections and so forth, I say, after we play the initial melody, don’t stop and change the feeling and from that go into sort of a more horizontal playing. In other words, I want the feeling of the linear. I want the melody to be played all the way through the song. Don’t stop after we play – let me think of a song – “Long Ago and Far Away” is something, you know the ending of “Long Ago and Far Away.” Then after you play the first melody, don’t stop playing and then start changing the beat and go into like a different beat. Keep the same feeling of the melody. So this is more linear. And gradually, gradually, go into – as the music itself asks for it, as I begin to move it further along. So this happens also with the bass, I mean sometimes you can’t have the bass player play the melody and then as soon as the melody is over, bang, go right into – that’s sort of a different style of playing that is more of a horizontal playing then a linear playing.
ES: Some people have reacted to your music by calling it somewhat satirical. I guess they might get that from how you quote songs, and some of them are pop melodies that don’t get much respect, generally, they’re just considered regular old pop tunes, and so they sense a satirical aspect. And when you’re performing, do you consider yourself a satirist at all?
SR: Well, in playing some of the pop tunes – well I play some pop tunes. But I think you’re referring to more like just snatches of pop mel –
ES: I guess if they hear – I mean going back to 1955 when you were playing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
SR: Right, right.
ES: They would sense an ironical, or maybe somewhat satirical approach to a tune like that.
SR: Well, I think that as an individual, I’m certainly – I mean, I’ll accept Orrin Keepnews’s description of me as being an intellectual person, so I wouldn’t play a Tin Pan Alley tune without having a deeper – you know, yes, there is a satirical nature, of course, to what I play. I mean, it’s not so much making fun of a song, but yes, there is. I play things in a way, a commentary perhaps on society, sure, you know, and some of these songs of course reflect that.
ES: And you feel in the course of a performance that the audience will get it, that if you’re thinking in a humorous vein, in the course of a solo that you feel the audience is responding in the same way?
SR: Well, generally I hope so, but you see it’s a trap to expect too much of the audience. I began playing like that irrespective of the audience. See, these are things which came out of my own playing, my own inner being, my own way that I view the world. And why “I’m an Old Cowhand” might mean more coming from me than it would mean coming from Roy Acuff, in other words. So yes, I do that. The people pick it up fine, but you know I can’t really worry about whether the people understand what I’m doing. I mean, they do fine. But you can’t fall into a trap of expecting too much from your audience, or wanting them to understand or playing to them or anything like that. You know it’s a very fine line there, you’ve got to be very, very cautious about that.
ES: There must be some occasions where you’ll feel as though the audience is responding to something that you didn’t necessarily mean for them to respond to. Especially if you’re playing to a very large audience, they might respond more to a simple gesture like a repeated figure or a held high note, than a phrase that perhaps you found more interesting.
ES: So are you ever thinking in those terms during a performance?
SR: No, I don’t have time to think in those terms. I mean, if one thing comes out and they respond to it after it’s played, then – I mean, things are happening so fast that it’s impossible to really program that kind of approach. If it happens at the time, okay, but I can’t program it, really.
ES: Is there anything, perhaps, that gets your goat sometimes, a distraction, like someone talking in the audience, or a sticky valve, or a piano out of tune? Is there anything that gets to you?
SR: Well things like a sticky valve, this is nature, you can’t help that. Or you know, a piano’s out of tune, or I’m out of tune on something. I mean sometimes these things happen. There are some things beyond our control, without a doubt. No, the only thing that gets to me is when I have high standards for myself and I want high standards for the men in the band, that’s the only thing. If somebody is not cutting it, you know, then I might be a little disturbed about that. But as far as anything else is concerned, and the audience – I came up at a time when we had to reach the audience, when it was up to us to reach the audience. It wasn’t up to the audience to come in there saying “Oh, well this is Joe Henderson, or this is Roy Hargrove or somebody, so let’s really love them because they’re who they are.” I came up at a time when we had to reach the people. We had to reach them. We didn’t expect them to come to us with anything. So the reaction of the audience isn’t something which – in a way I try not to think about that. It’s up to the band to reach the audience, I’ve always felt that way.
ES: There’s a story I was hoping you might want to tell – it’s about how you accidentally swallowed part of your mouthpiece during the first tune of a performance.
SR: Yeah. Well, I didn’t want to tell because it’s a sort of a painful story [laughter]. It wasn’t particularly painful at the time because I hadn’t realized it. But there’s a rubber tip which fits in on the top of a metal saxophone mouthpiece. And actually I was playing not far from here, I was playing at SUNY [State University of New York] in New Paltz, the university. And so while I was playing I sort of felt something go down my throat, you know. But again, when you’re in the heat of playing, you’re in another state, so to speak. So of course I wouldn’t stop, because unless something really happened, that knocked my horn out of my mouth, something like that, but this wouldn’t be something to make me stop. But anyway this happened one time, I think then I realized that I forgot when [I] was on the stand, or after the set was over, and I looked and I saw that this thing was off with my mouthpiece and I had swallowed it, you know. So that was it. I mean it was an unfortunate experience. I didn’t get any ill physical effects from it, you know, I guess it just passed through my system.
ES: It would lead to a lot of difficult vibrations?
SR: When we were playing, yes, because then you have to be playing right on metal, this is something that would give a cushion between your teeth and the mouthpiece, which is made of metal. If you play right on the metal itself, it would sort of cause vibrations and so on. It’d be more difficult and it would, you know, like getting a squeaky thing in your ears. It might have some kind of nerves effect, like if you had a sore tooth, this type of effect it would have on you.
ES: In the notes to your new compilation, there’s kind of a mysterious reference there to a kind of conceptual breakthrough that you had at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Perhaps it’s impossible to say in words what it is, but do you want to venture, at least somewhat?
SR: Well, we were playing something – I think we were playing a calypso at the time, but it’s not important really, what the song was that we were playing. Except that it might be in a way, because the people in New Orleans really like calypsos, you know, I mean being part of – when the slaves came over from Africa, they all congregated around Congo Square there, you know, which is an apocryphal story about jazz, right? Anyway, people in New Orleans like this type of more primitive, if I can use that word, musics like that. So they were reacting [unintelligible], and so while we were doing that, I was playing something which sort of opened – slightly cracked a door, you know, which I began to see a little bit of light. Anyway, the whole point is that I see my playing going back to almost an aboriginal level. I can’t describe the music, of course, you can’t describe music, really that well. I mean writers and people like that make a stab at it. But in general, I can’t describe this because I haven’t really heard it all yet. But somebody, a friend of mine, a saxophone player, called me, I was talking to him, he said, “Oh, gee Sonny, how’s everything and what are you doing these days, musically?” So I was trying to tell him, I said, “Well look, I’m beginning to hear something which is – I’m going back. I hear something which is going backwards in a way of speaking. It’s something that’s more aboriginal.” That’s something which I’m getting into, I’m trying to hear now, I’m trying to get to. So rather than saying, “Well gee, what’s this guy doing there playing all these new things,” I’m hearing something which is going back in a way. And maybe in the general scheme of life there is no back and forwards anyway. But the back part of the circle, or the other side of the circle, is what I’m trying to get to now. So I mean, let’s just assume it’s a circle. There is no guys playing something new every ten years, let’s say that. But still, there is something more from the other side of the circle that we haven’t heard. Perhaps even back to the beginning of mankind or something. You know, who knows what I’m thinking about, what I’ve heard. But something that I feel like that I haven’t been playing before, anyway, let’s put it that way. That I heard this opportunity to try to hear that and bring it out some kind of way, you know.
ES: Maybe a way to get close to that idea is to think of all instruments are born of certain historical circumstances – the saxophone only a hundred and fifty years old or so, invented in Europe – and you’re going back to something more elemental that has to do with dance and drumming and the human voice?
SR: Sure, of course, of course. Which is one of the good things about the saxophone, because the saxophone is such an adaptive instrument, so people were able to really sort of adapt all of these elements: dance, and animal sounds, and all these things, through the saxophone. So I can use that, you know. Well it’s my instrument, I’m playing it, so I mean I’m trying to get this sound out through my instrument you know, through the saxophone.
ES: What music do you listen to nowadays, and who do you share your musical ideas with?
SR: Well, just like I told you before, I don’t like to listen to myself. I’ve also gotten to a point where listening to music is almost a chore for me. No, let me explain that. I like listening to music. For instance, if I went out to listen to a jazz group tonight, you know some good guys, I would love that. I’d really appreciate what they’re playing and everything. And I’d hear a lot of stuff that would inspire me and everything would be great. But when I’m in my own sanctuary, I don’t really like to listen to music. I don’t, I mean I don’t listen to any music, I really don’t. People send me music, and cassettes, and CDs, and tapes and all this stuff, with people. And you know, I’ll listen to this guy, okay, that I’ll do. But you know, I’ve listened to so much music in my lifetime. Not to say that there’s nothing new coming out, that’s not what I mean by that. I mean that you get to the point where the actual act of sitting down and passively listening to music has a negative connotation to it. I mean perhaps it’s an overload of some kind. So I like music, I love music, I love listening to music, of course. I listen to a lot of music, I listen to a lot of recordings, a lot of tapes, everything, all my life. But I don’t enjoy listening to music now, really. I don’t enjoy just sitting down and listening to music. I mean I don’t even listen to my own music, which as you say is informative. You can say, “Well gee, listen to what I was doing then,” you know, I mean this can be informative. But I don’t even do that really.
ES: I was just reading about a composer named Lou Harrison – he’s a 20th-century classical composer, and he’s, I think, presently building a house in the desert, that’s completely soundproof because he wants complete silence. He used to live in New York and hated it. And he finds a complete silence out there regenerative for his music. He also learned sign language and meets with people to communicate without any sound whatsoever. He finds that that kind of silence complements his composing, so when he hears music it has more richness to it. And perhaps, does that have any relevance to your living out here in the Catskills rather than in New York?
SR: That rings a bell, sure. Sure, sure. He’s taken it to that extreme, and that’s wonderful, because – so he avoids all musical sounds if he can, is that it? Or does he listen to music?
ES: He probably listens to music sometimes, too. But he needs at least some kind of ritual periods of complete silence, and without any unnecessary noise.
SR: Yeah, well I haven’t gotten to that point. In other words, sometimes I like to have background noise, I mean radio babbling in the background or something, you know. Not music generally, you know. I mean, this is when I’m practicing. I’d still at times like to hear some cacophony in the background, I mean if it’s soft enough, you know. But I can sympathize with what’s he’s doing, I think there’s probably some merit to what he’s doing.
ES: Now living up here in the Catskills, do you ever miss an active sense of musical community that you might have in New York City?
SR: Well, I still maintain a residence in New York City, so I get down to the city, I still rehearse in the city. So I still enjoy some of that energy from the city, I still partake of some of that. So I’m not exactly isolated up here. I mean, I think that’s been maybe overblown a little bit, you know. There was a time when I was in the city when, for some reason, people really looked up to me a lot. And I couldn’t go to a club, ’cause when I used to go to clubs they’d be, “Oh Sonny, Sonny,” then a lot of people would sort of, you know. Now that hasn’t happened recently, and believe me, it didn’t elevate my sense of self-worth, anything of that sort. It was just something that I didn’t want to get involved in, because then I couldn’t listen to the guys. So that was a period. This was maybe 20 years ago. So but anyway, I stopped really going out to clubs a long time ago, you know, as a general rule, like I had done earlier in my life. So coming up here in a way, and living up here, is not really a big, gigantic change. Because even when I’m in the city, I don’t usually go out around, cats don’t see me when I’m in the city, you know.
ES: You’ve referred to a lot of people, probably a lot of them strangers, coming up to you if you’re in public in New York. And I guess a lot of jazz musicians, of course, have personality cults that form around them. And certainly someone of your stature and fame, at this point, is going to have to deal with that on some level. And of course movie stars often think that their fans are like cannibals, as though if they ever saw them they’d try to eat them alive.
ES: And do you ever have an odd feeling if you go from your nice quiet home here in the Catskills to New York and all of the sudden there are these screaming people out there?
SR: Well, no. For one thing, I’m not on the level – I mean, I’m not like Sylvester Stallone or one of these people that this would happen to, so that’s cool. I mean, if I’m in the city, you know, I might be in the city and somebody might notice me one day. But then again, I might be in the city another day and nobody would even look at you twice. So it’s not a thing that I live with everyday. I mean people in the music industry know me, I have a certain notoriety, or whatever, you know [laughter]. But it’s not that much of a thing for me, that people always recognize me where I go, you know. So I mean, it doesn’t bother me. I mean when I’m playing or something I like to sign autographs with people, I try to be very, very cordial with all my fans – I mean, I think it’s great, you know. In fact, mentioning Miles again, Miles used to have this persona of being, “Oh, the public [unintelligible],” but in the later part of his life, he was out there signing autographs and was glad to do it. Of course, I think he was always that way, I think this was sort of a put-on character that he was playing. But anyway, I think it’s good that people like you, you know, appreciate you. And you know, I mean it’s an honor, really, for me to have gotten to people, and moved people to that extent. So I feel that I’m really blessed, you know. People have told me, “Well gee, Sonny, I was really feeling low, and had to go to work, and [was] putting on one of your records and [it] made me feel better. This is great, because then I’m doing something out here, you know. I’m not just playing for myself, I’m not just enjoying myself, you know, I’m really doing something for somebody else, which is what life is all about, you see. So I don’t have any trouble, and I’m not that well-known that that has ever been a problem to me.
ES: Although you do have instances, like for instance the critic Gary Giddins from the Village Voice who’s always been one of your biggest supporters –
SR: A big fan, yeah.
ES: – and Francis Davis who’s a very prominent jazz critic, have both, in so many words, said that you’re the best improviser around, really, in the whole jazz world at this point. And so is that something you have to try not to think about – how you stack up in history, that sort of thing?
SR: Well, I mean, I appreciate them saying that. I mean, I’m trying to be a good player, so I’m not gonna say, “Well gee, that’s not true.” No, I’m trying to play, I’m practicing all the time, and I’m trying to be better, because I have a dedication to the music as an art form, you know, and I have respect for that. I mean, I played with a lot of great people. From Lester Young, and Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell, and Monk, and Coltrane and Miles, and Dizzy – I mean these people, I’ve got a respect for what I’m doing, you see. So if people think that way about me, you know, I’m honored, really. But on the other hand, I don’t absorb it into myself because by virtue of playing with some of these people, I know what greatness is. So I’m still trying to get to my thing. I haven’t gotten to my thing yet. See, so I’m not worried – [if] people said that, fine, thank you. It just may be a boost [so] I can get another gig someplace, you know, but I don’t take it seriously.
ES: I once heard Mercer Ellington being interviewed on the radio, and someone asked him whether he thought that his father, of course Duke Ellington, was a selfish person. Of course Mercer wrote a book about his father; it’s very psychoanalytical, and there were a lot of issues between himself and his father. He wasn’t really sure how to respond, and he said it depends how you look at it. That since he often felt manipulated and browbeaten by his father, you could call him a selfish person in some sense. But on the other hand, any great artist who devotes himself to his art can never be described as selfish, because they’re making this lasting contribution to music, and also they’re giving up the privileges of being a normal person, in that you can become a slave to your art. And there’ve been some words that have come up in the course of this interview, like – I don’t know if the word “torture” came up – but certainly you were describing it being a painful experience listening to your old recordings and picking out things. So I guess my general question is, do you feel like you’ve sacrificed anything by being an artist, and that you’ve given up a lot of privileges that normal people have of just living their daily lives?
SR: No, I don’t feel that way at all, no, I don’t feel that way. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing what I wanted to be. As a matter of fact, when I was in elementary school, coming out of school, at one time I wanted to paint and be an artist. I used to like to draw cartoons and this kind of stuff. So I [unintelligible], then I liked music, but to me just being able to play music is a blessing. You know, this is fantastic. You know, being able to play. I mean, I saw somebody else made a quote, “Well gee, doing what you like to do, this is the greatest thing.” So that’s me, I’m doing what I really like to do. And people have helped, said they like my work. So this has made it possible for me to be a successful working musician. And anyway, I don’t want to get too successful because jazz is not that type of a business where you can retire with your millions. At least for me it’s not. I mean I don’t make that kind of money and I’m not trying to be that kind of an artist. I mean, I don’t go out to make money when I play. I mean I make enough that I can survive and live, you know. So for me it’s perfect. I’m doing what I want to do and it’s never been a problem. Sure, being an ordinary person, whatever that is, is good too, because I have a philosophy that everybody has something important to do. Whatever it is, you have something. A guy that is a street sweeper is a very important guy if he does it well and people say, “Boy, this guy comes around every morning, he really doesn’t leave anything.” I mean these kinds of things have a good effect on the whole human race. So everybody has something to do in this world. Okay, everybody. So the fact that I’m also doing something that I like, you know, like music, and I like it – this, I mean to me, I couldn’t be happier about that part of it.
ES: Okay, just one last question.
ES: When you’re practicing here alone at your house here in the Catskills, do you ever reach anything comparable to the sublime moments of improvisation when you’re performing live, perhaps in a more introspective way?
SR: Not really, not really. When I’m practicing here, basically I’m doing things of a rudimentary nature. You know, I’m just practicing scales and things of this sort, and trying to compose, or trying to put together band arrangements and things like that. And then I also do related things, my reading and all this stuff, all related to my music. But I’ve often said – in fact I was saying this to a friend of mine the other day, that it’s not the same when you practice as when you perform. So the downside of the type of existence I’m living now, where I am not performing every week, I’m not out there every other week in New York or traveling, you know. The downside is that you sort of get a little bit away from your art, you get slightly away from it. And there’s no amount of practicing that I can do here which can approximate being on the bandstand playing. There’s no preparation for that. The whole atmosphere being once you’re on the bandstand, that’s when you do it. So you could learn more on the bandstand in half an hour than I could here playing for six months. So it’s completely different experiences, really.
ES: Well thank you so much for talking with me today.
SR: Thank you very much.