The legendary Sonny Rollins played to a sell out Barbican last night. At 79-years old he’s outlived the other players that shaped the jazz genre, yet when we spoke he was philosophically flippant about the thought of death.
Yoga and political activism contribute to his healthy diet now and it was no surprise that the devoted performer had been the most anticipated concert at this year’s London Jazz Festival.
Met with a standing ovation, Sonny took to the stage with his trademark hunch and jolty way of moving. He rolled straight into the show with a signature piece that licked every note. His fluency contradicts his mechanical mannerisms but even with a lifetime of music behind him there was nothing routine about the performance. It was light-hearted, jovial almost and where he offered a favourite like St Thomas this was followed up with a Noel Coward track. It’s an inspiring sight seeing such an old guy dance Soca on stage but the Calypso sounds that carried the set to a close had everyone involved.
Aged 15, my first encounter with Sonny was in the TV show The Simpsons. But for most Saxophone Colossus would have caught their attention, the record that brought him fame in 1956 when Sonny was 26. Having already made a name for himself earlier that decade by recording albums with Miles Davis and Theolonius Monk, Rollins soon become known as ‘the greatest living improviser’. The record title was no hyperbole and if it didn’t do so already it referred to his future status in the industry.
As time was short, I asked Sonny how it felt to be immortalised amongst the likes of Homer and Bart. “It was an honour, you know. Even though I wasn’t asked about it and only found out later than a tribute had been made to me it was truly an honour.” Other great artists, including Bill Cosby, have said the same.
53 years after Saxophone Colossus and 49 studio albums later, time has given him the silver mane and an air of wisdom that characterised him in the cartoon. Perhaps this was achieved in 1979 when he embarked on his most recent sabbatical to study yoga and Zen meditation. As if Lloyd Miller had taken over our talk, Rollin’s took off on a rolling solo.
“I think as a species we’re getting ready to be extinct. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing because it’s about individuality, life is a personal thing. We have to fight our battles ourselves. That’s what it’s about. We can’t just think, “Oh gee I’m going to die, look how old I am.” Life is so short anyway what’s the point in thinking we have to live forever. The human condition makes people too greedy.”
This sounded vaguely like eco-politics to me so I prodded a bit harder at these ideas.
“I’m a political junky. Do you know Al Gore?” asked Rollins.
I replied, “I know he was robbed of a presidency and I’ve seen an Inconvenient Truth.“
"Well, he was definitely robbed of a presidency. But, a reporter suggested to him recently that eating meat was the most environmentally destructive thing that’s being done to the planet then asked him if he would be a vegetarian. He said, “no no, I have no plan to become one.” So, I’ve lost a little respect for him because I thought he should have said “yes, maybe one day a week people should stop and I’ll will too since I’m an important environmentalist.””
“Are you a veggie?” I asked.
“No, I eat a bit of fish and some chicken occasionally. I don’t eat meat mainly for health reasons but I would definitely stop if I were an environmentalist. “
Through the syncopated chat emerged the fact that health and happiness are at the centre of Rollins’ life. They harmonised in his performance and it’s clearer now than ever that Colossus is a title he truly deserves.