[JPL] Sonny Rollins starts fresh with an album and self-run label

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Thu Aug 24 06:15:37 EDT 2006


Time Out New York / Issue 569: August 24­30, 2006

What¹s new?

Saxophone master Sonny Rollins starts fresh with an album and self-run

By K. Leander Williams

 TENOR OF THE TIMES Sonny Rollins returned to the studio for the first time
in five years.
 Photograph: Phil Bray

Musically speaking, one might be forgiven for thinking that tenor-sax icon
Sonny Rollins and Leonard Cohen occupy parallel planes that don¹t have much
to offer each other. But there the Canadian songwriter-laureate is on
YouTube, making way for the saxophone colossus in a clip from their one-off
appearance together on the late-¹80s TV show Night Music. As Cohen whispers
his litany of the human condition in the song ³Who by Fire,² Rollins hangs
back. Then, he gets a solo break, and everything in his vicinity is
swallowed whole. In the rush of Rollins¹s choruses, all the rapture and
pathos in Cohen¹s lyrics (³And who by brave assent / Who by accidentŠwho for
his hungerŠwho shall I say is calling?²) comes flooding back in a torrent of
melodic deconstruction. Cohen and host altoist David Sanborn can only look
on in blissful awe.

On such occasions it¹s easy to both see and hear why Rollins has long been
considered the world¹s greatest living saxophonist. To the 75-year-old
Harlem-bred veteran, the experience wasn¹t such an oddity at all. ³Most
things can be, for lack of a better phrase, jazzed up,² he says from his
home in upstate Germantown. ³Tunes from the American Songbook just seem more
applicable.² Not surprisingly, on those nights when his muse is sufficiently
nourished, pop audiences have witnessed contemporary jazz at its most
magnificent, while jazzheads genuflect in the presence of a master who has
had many challengers but no true rivals since the death of John Coltrane in
1967. The aficionados know something else, however: That the genius Sonny
sometimes falls prey to another incarnation, an enigma whose performances
have just as often gotten stuck in first gear. Carl Smith, a Maine
entrepreneur and Rollins fanatic who has made surreptitious recordings of
the saxist and is in possession of hundreds of Rollins bootlegs ranging as
far back as 1949, recently explained the disparity with a baseball metaphor.
³Sonny¹s like the player who always swings for the fences,² he says. ³You¹re
not gonna hit a home run every at-bat, but if you connect and everything¹s
in place, there¹s also the possibility of a grand slam. At every stage of
his career he¹s hit more of those than his later recorded work suggests.²

Rollins obviously feels that there are more long balls in his future. His
34-year association with Milestone Records came to an end last year, and
though he claims to be ³a Luddite,² the release of the new Sonny, Please,
his first studio session in five years, shows that he¹s learned enough about
new technologies to start Doxy Records, an Internet-only imprint. The disc
is mostly a ballads affair, although it opens with the burning title track
(named for a phrase Rollins attributes to his recently deceased wife and
business manager, Lucille) and closes with one of Rollins¹s now trademark
excursions into calypso. He¹s currently hammering out a retail-distribution
deal, and is having little fun doing so. ³Y¹know, thinking about anything
associated with having a company‹bookkeeping, royalty statements, all that
stuff‹makes me ill,² he confesses. ³But everyone knows that it¹s a
musician¹s dream to own their work, and this seems to be the right vehicle
for mine, without trying to be a mogul or anything.²

Perhaps even more surprising is his growing connection to Smith. For obvious
reasons, the artist/bootlegger relationship is generally an antagonistic
one, but with Rollins¹s approval, Smith¹s tape of the Boston concert from
September 15, 2001, became the saxist¹s final Milestone disc, last year¹s
Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. (Rollins was in his Duane Street apartment
during the attack.) ³Of course, Lucille and I were leery of Carl at first,²
Rollins explains. ³But I found out he¹s part of this closed network of
collectors who only trade performances. If you sell anything, no one will
trade with you. Now he¹s gone the extra step of giving me access to his
archive, to do with as I please.² Rollins pauses, perhaps knowing that his
next statement will be music to a jazzbo¹s ears. ³Releasing the best ones on
my label isn¹t just a possibility. It¹s a probability.²

Sonny, Please is available from sonnyrollins.com. Sonny Rollins plays
Damrosch Park Sunday 27.

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