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Jazz Pilgrimage

Photo by Steve MarutaOne of the biggest holes in my music-loving life gets patched soon: I will see Sonny Rollins play live. Should have done it before; there can be no good excuses (though I’ll toss out a few bad ones in a sec), because Rollins is non-omissible. Now 74, he has taken the tenor sax to places nobody else could go — not Coltrane, not Hawkins, not Young. And a jazz fan doesn’t pass up an encounter with that. It’s like being a Muslim in Saudi Arabia and never going to Mecca. Now comes the whining, which starts with the observation that Rollins doesn’t come here often. Like so many improvisers, the Harlem native reserves few cuddles for Los Angeles — thinks jazz appreciation here is on a low curve. Well, maybe he’s still nursing a grudge over our city’s theft of the Brooklyn Dodgers. (He got his early nickname, Newk, because he looked like Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe.) To give you an idea, when he ventured out in 1998, he told Jazz Weekly’s Fred Jung it was “another chance to confront the ogre.” Furthermore, when Rollins has visited our hood, it has tended to be in cultural worship facilities where you really do feel like you ought to don a white robe and prostrate yourself. And Wednesday’s appearance at Disney Concert Hall is no different. I can stay sober for a couple of hours, and I don’t mind soiling my burnoose in obeisance when the occasion demands it. But the larger obstacle to attending a rare Sonny Rollins performance has been the sneaking suspicion that it’s not going to be great, a notion that arises from the wildly erratic studio albums he’s put out his last three decades with Milestone. A multitude of ills reside in that catalog: pop-funk shucking, instantly dated synth doodling, ordinary accompanists. And these recordings often force you to consider the physical demands of Rollins’ playing as you hear the cumulative effects of age — bad teeth and loss of wind, truncating his phrases and adding quavers to his once oaken tone. Saxists deal with their inevitable deficits in different ways, and the result isn’t always diminished art. Coltrane’s dental dilemmas made him discover whole new ways to explode sound. John Gilmore, when he couldn’t blow long lines anymore, condensed his thoughts into a kind of code; Yusef Lateef currently does the same thing. Charles Lloyd, hale or sick, has simply united with his instruments, and at 67 he’s never been better. Even if Rollins’ technical adjustments haven’t been universally unfailing — the high range will be faint on one tune, the middle on another — his ideas, which grow ever more direct, have remained cogent. The folks at Milestone demonstrated his strengths with a solid whack in 1996, when they shipped the double-disc retrospective Silver City. Placed back to back, Rollins’ best over the last few decades doesn’t look up to anybody’s, whether he’s two-gun blasting on “McGhee” (1982), tapping the passion on “Autumn Nocturne” (1978) or pulling joyful enthusiasm from the normally wistful “Someone To Watch Over Me” (1991). His last couple of records sport bright flashes, too, especially on blues: The note choices are as cunningly weird as ever on “Mother Nature’s Blues” (Global Warming, 1998), and he asserts mature concision and studly note-shaping prowess on “Charles M.” and “Moon of Manakoora” (This Is What I Do, 2000). If the individual Milestone albums aren’t consistent . . . well, the earlier ones rarely were, either. All those triumphs were pulled off in the studio, a fact that raises the main reason to experience Sonny Rollins live: He hates the studio. Won’t go in one without being tricked, goaded or patiently waited upon. Might never blow a note in one again, since his co-producer, beloved wife and cattle prod, Lucille Rollins, passed on last year. No, Rollins lives for those moments on the stage when the electricity of cosmos and community shoots through him. (For God’s sake and your own, let him know you love him.) His greatest surviving quick-silvery involvements are found live, for instance on A Night at the Village Vanguard from 1957. So know this: Soar or crash, Sonny Rollins will be in the now, for real. The life of Rollins has been a Siddhartha journey, full of insane extremes. Though the Newkid on the New York turn-of-the-’50s block and for a time a notorious junkie, he was recognized early as a talent, blowing with Bud Powell at the age of 18 and soon landing work with Miles Davis and with Thelonious Monk, who’d been a primary mentor in the ways of rhythmic and harmonic originality. Always an emulator of Coleman Hawkins’ masculine tone and licentious swing, Rollins quickly usurped the throne of his aging idol with a restless, leaping energy that perfectly suited the musical climate after Charlie Parker’s 1955 demise. If you want to be amazed and really uncomfortable sometime, engage the 1963 document Sonny Meets Hawk, where Rollins’ frenzy to assert his own identity leads him to trample brilliantly yet inappropriately over Hawkins’ phrases, while the master remains timeless and unconcerned. But that was after Rollins had passed through comparisons with the man whom many saw as his challenger, in the person of his friend John Coltrane. Rollins had established his dominance of the herd with such thrusts as the modestly titled Tour de Force and Saxophone Colossus (both 1956); he was clocked at times on the former at 15 notes per second. The way he sculpted his phrases and juggled them like jade figurines — it made you wonder how he could do that without stopping time. Yet he was an obsessive perfectionist and therefore perennially insecure. Rollins played with Miles, then Coltrane did. Rollins played with Monk, then Coltrane did. A pattern of succession was emerging, and it was not one that pleased Rollins. The new hyperfreedom of Ornette Coleman was also making waves. In 1959, at the moment that Coltrane was poised to rule the world with Kind of Blue (alongside Davis) and Giant Steps, Rollins dropped out of sight. Drug-free, recently married to Lucille and looking to expand the edges of his art, he felt it was time for his famous solitary woodshedding sessions on New York’s Williamsburg Bridge. He would not return to the studio till 1962. Upon Rollins’ grand re-entrance, the evidence suggests that the main lesson he’d learned had less to do with style or technique than with character: His only real competitor was himself. Yes, he’d added some Coltrane-like overblowing to his arsenal, and he now sometimes pushed his melody fracturing to extremes. Yes, he used Coleman’s sidemen Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and David Izenzon in his ensembles, and the vocalic gruffness of Archie Shepp now and then crept into his middle-lower register. But a lot of people were expecting a new Rollins, and they didn’t get one. What, really, could he have changed? He was the best at what he did, and any genuine parallel with Coltrane boiled down merely to the fact that they both played tenor. Coltrane’s endless scale variations and chord overlappings reflected the infinite structures of the universe; his melodies were like prayers for transcendence. Rollins was the opposite — the ultimate human, living and jawing in the moment, his feet always returning to the Manhattan pavement. When you hear the way he shades each individual note of “Four” from 1964, or dances like a windblown leaf around the rhythms of the theme he wrote for the 1966 film Alfie, you understand what now means and why, even if you don’t agree, Rollins feels it’s wrong to bring an old now back. Rollins left the public eye to search himself again, for an even longer period, after a 1968 visit to India, where he studied meditation and yoga. That time, when he ended a separation from his wife and returned to the hated music business to record for Milestone, he was indeed changed. His musical choices reflected a willingness to accept the unrealness of the world, to accept business as business. He seemed to have found the humility that every survivor must discover. Yet Rollins remains a strong, strong individual. People still scrutinize his newer nows as well as his old ones, and they still write about him. A couple of books in print only begin to explain this ultimate artist. Eric Nisenson’s Open Sky (2000), though overly worshipful, is a useful source, especially as Rollins gives few interviews. And Peter Niklas Wilson’s Sonny Rollins: The Definitive Musical Guide (2001) is a big help in wading through the substantial discography. I won’t be reading them much before the show, though. I know I’ll never get Sonny Rollins’ number. And I don’t think I want to. Sonny Rollins, with bassist Bob Cranshaw, trombonist Clifton Anderson, drummer Steve Jordan and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, plays the Walt Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday, March 16.