Music: Seventy, and still blowing strong

Phil Johnson talks to Sonny Rollins on the eve of a rare visit to London
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The Independent Culture
Attending a concert by the American tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is like witnessing a ritual in the dark. As far as jazz goes, it's just about the last great ritual left. First there's the setting, usually a red plush theatre like the Palladium or the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, although this time round the venue will be the more utilitarian hall of the Barbican, where Rollins plays on Friday 8 October as part of the 40th birthday celebrations for Ronnie Scott's Club. Wherever the gig, there's always a palpable sense of occasion because Rollins visits Britain infrequently and it's invariably a sell-out. When his tall, distinctive figure eventually appears through the velvet safety curtain, dressed raffishly in some natty, bright-coloured threads, it's almost a show in itself.

Then, after suitable adjustments to the mouthpiece of his horn and a nod to his band, Sonny Rollins begins to play. To call what he does just playing, however, amounts to damning with faint praise. It's more like lighting the blue touch-paper and ensuring that everyone stands well back. As soon as decently possible, Rollins jettisons the pretence of equality with the band in favour of a long opening improvisation - a good 15 minutes or so - that races pell-mell through the chord changes with a power, grace and beauty that have to be heard to be believed. As the ideas come tumbling out of his horn - and they are ideas as much as musical phrases, calibrated to the accuracy of a mathematical formula - you can find yourself laughing with sheer delight at the impish genius of it all.

The notes appear to take on a life of their own; the corny old show-tune that provides their pretext ("Failing In Love With Love" is a favourite) is transformed into music from the gods; and no matter how long Rollins goes on for, he never seems to repeat himself, as most jazz saxophonists do routinely within the space of a single chorus. If Sonny Rollins is this good now (and he turned 70 two weeks ago), what on earth was he like at 30? Or even 20, when he was already working in New York with Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Bud Powell.

The pianist Paul Bley used to tell a story about his first ever gig in New York in the late Fifties, when he played with Rollins at a club. The set started and Rollins almost immediately went into a long solo that lasted for an hour, before passing the tune over to Bley and leaving the stage. What Bley didn't know was that Rollins had also left the club, and quite possibly New York. He was still vamping away an hour later, when Rollins suddenly returned and brought the tune to a close. "When I start a solo, I never know how long I'm going to play," says Rollins. "This is jazz after all, and I don't ever wear a watch. The music should be open-ended and seem like it could go on for ever and ever. As long as I have the strength and I'm hearing the music I would go on indefinitely if I could, but I am becoming a little more aware so that I don't play the whole set on one number like I used to do."

In person, Theodore Walter Rollins (Sonny was an early nickname that stuck), is a quiet and unassuming man who is very serious about jazz. He and his wife live in upstate New York, although he was brought up in Harlem, where he could go down the block to where Monk and Coleman Hawkins lived and get their autographs. His concern with the theatricality of his performances stems, he says, from this time. "When I was a boy and went to the Apollo Theatre, there'd be that moment when the curtain would open and you'd see and hear the band for the first time, and it would always be a spectacle."

He denies fervently that his concern for the grand entrance occurs at the expense of the rest of the set. "I really took great offence when a writer here said that Sonny Rollins comes out and gives us a socko opener and then tails off," he says. "I do want to open with something that is forceful and exciting, but I want to keep that up, with the whole show on the same high level. I'm getting older, and I can't do a real heavy schedule any more, so when I do do a concert I work hard both physically and mentally. That's just the way I am. I put a lot into it and I can't really do any more."

Famously, Rollins used to practise for six hours a day. "Now, if I can get in three good hours I feel I've had a good day, but you have to learn to slow down. This is the reality of getting older," he says. He's very happy to be playing as part of the celebrations for Ronnie Scott's, where he often appeared in the 1960s and made friends with Scott and the staff. "I was very fond of the place, and a lot of things happened when I played there. I was offered the film score for Alfie when the people from the movie came to the club, and I remember staying up all night there after I'd finished playing to compose the music for it. When I finished my engagement I would buy presents for all the people at the club; there was a real feeling of family and it was very unusual to be able to share such camaraderie." Although he admits feeling nostalgic about the informality of a club setting, he's not about to start playing them again. "I miss the closeness to the audience, which is something you can't have in a concert setting, but on balance I feel I have to continue my career the way I've chosen. It's more important that I only play concert halls because of the respect it means for jazz." Catch him if you can.

Sonny Rollins plays the Barbican on Friday 8 October. The Barbican also hosts a charity gala for Ronnie Scott's 40th anniversary on Saturday 2 October, with George Benson, the Count Basie Orchestra, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and many more guests. (0171 638 8891 for both events)

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