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Sonny Rollins Talks John Coltrane

It’s Newk’s birthday – number 81. Today it was announced that he’s part of the next Kennedy Center Honors. Next week, the second edition of his Road Shows disc will be released. It contains a chunk of last year’s 80th birthday show at the Beacon, the one that had him connecting with Ornette Coleman. You can hear it right now on NPR. I wrote a DownBeat piece on that night and the following days. But to celebrate Rollins’ current birthday, I dug into an personal archive that found musicians speaking on Coltrane. It was for a mid-80s piece published in Musician magazine. Here’s Newk talking about his pal:

John came into the “Tenor Madness” session by accident; he just happened to be at the date. He had his horn and someone suggested it. In those days, guys just kind of hung out together. I first met him in Miles Davis’ band. He had a big reputation preceding him around New York. The idea of two tenors tangling was a media hype – it always is. It goes back to the big band horn battles. But it was overdone; John and I were close personal friends, and the music was paramount. Saxophone battles and all that didn’t add up to much. We were into developing ideas and finding applications for them.

I first heard him in a band with Kenny Clarke. I remember very well. John and Kenny – it was fantastic. And I recall thinking that John was a puzzle. I could never figure out how he arrived at, or how he came up with, what he played. It was one of the things that made him unique. I never got a better fix on it through the years. Like any genius, it’s hard to get a handle on how they come up with their ideas.

His influence was pervasive. It’s inevitable to have influences. Any guy who’s that much into music is bound to be listening heavily to someone before them…like I did with Coleman Hawkins. The individuality will come out if it’s there. It depends whether the player can transcend the influence. To play what we call modern music, you’d have to have some antecedents.

A musician like Trane shouldn’t be judged in terms of his “early” or “late” work; there was value in all of it. I liked it all. It was all Trane. The best band was with McCoy and Elvin. He went through a lot of musicians to get that band together. He’d compare notes with others, talk about different players. I liked a piece called “I’ll Wait And Pray,” and of course I felt very happy about “Like Sonny.”  A Love Supreme was important because it came at a time when the group was crystalizing its extended works. It had certain spiritual implications, ideas Trane was interested in. I heard it said he was a “political” saxophonist, but it would be impossible to know what was in his mind at the time, politics or no. If anything, his playing was making a statement about religious ideas. But there’s no question the ’60s were full of turmoil. If you wanted to take some of his music and say, “Well, this shows he was angry,” I guess you could. But they called me that, too. How much of it was really true is open for debate. Did he consciously say, “I want to be a political player”? Can’t say for sure. To me he was just a musician playing. But remember, every black musician is automatically political. You can’t help being political if you’re black in the United States; it’s a fait accompli.

Lockjaw Davis recommended John to play tenor. He had been playing alto beforehand. When he went to soprano, I wasn’t surprised. Steve Lacy was the only one who was doing it at the time. John had that sound on tenor, though. You could tell it was him instantly. When you were around him you felt like you were with a genius. A genius and a serious, energetic player. He had a sense of humor, but he was serious. His humor wasn’t about cracking jokes. He was more droll, or wry. Almost like a minister, a minister of music.

Ted Panken has a couple wonderful interviews with Sonny.

Lloyd Sachs has some great quotes, too. 

Nels & Marc: Pink Floyd vs Allman Brothers

Recently had a great chat with Marc Ribot and Nels Cline. It’s the cover story of this month’s DownBeat magazine. We discussed composing to a piece of film, working in the pop realm, and dream projects. I also asked about the weirdest thing they’ve ever seen from the stage. It’s a fun read. A sizable chunk of the Q&A was edited for space reasons, but below is one slashed exchange that I wanted to put out there. I’ll try to post some more extra passages in the next few days. You know Nels is Wilco’ing at the Solid Sound Festival, right? And Marc is playing solo in the burbs  and the Undead JazzFest, and dueting with Henry Grimes at the Vision Festival.

JM: What’s the better guitar freak-out: “Interstellar Overdrive” or “Whipping Post”?

Nels: Oh well, “Interstellar Overdrive.” I love the Allman Brothers, but I don’t think “Whipping Post” is a freak-out. I think Syd Barrett is one of the most underrated guitarists in rock, ever.

Marc: I prefer the guitar interactions on “Careful With that Axe, Eugene.” More subtle, but still gorgeous.

JM: Okay, better melody, Ventures’ “Telstar” or Lonnie Mack’s “Wham”?

Nels: Wow, “Telstar” is pretty great.

Marc: I have to confess my ignorance. I don’t know that Lonnie Mack tune. But I love the Ventures. One of my bands did “Walk, Don’t Run.” I liked the Shadows, too.

Nels: One of the first songs someone tried to teach me was “Penetration.” In California in the 60s you could see the guitars hanging in a rack display at the Thrifty drug store. You could stand there and touch them. They seemed magical. On Saturday afternoons they’d have concerts of cover bands on a flatbed. Big Fender Dual Showman amps. No mics on the amp. Beautiful.

Marc: Outdoors? I’m picturing real surf in the background. Venice Beach.

Nels: More like Culver City in front of a supermarket. But the sound was so exciting. Not punishing. That was start of my sound fixation. That and the radio.


JM: Kermit Driscoll says he has great photo of him and Bill Frisell wearing uniforms while playing in a funk band during the mid-70s in New England.

Marc: That’s brings us into another kind of conversation. Bands we did for bread.

Nels: I have to opt out on that on. I just worked in record stores and played music no one came to listen to.

Marc: That’s an honorable choice.

Nels: It didn’t seem honorable at the time. It seemed weak.

Marc: This is one of the dirty secrets of jazz in the metropolitan area. A lot of the people who tried to play bebop in fact supported themselves by playing weddings. It doesn’t make it into many interviews.

JM: And still do. Not at your age or your level, but many do.

Ribot: Knock on wood, my brother.

Miguel Zenon: Plenty of Plena

Had fun writing this profile of the superb alto saxophonist and bandleader for DownBeat. Listen to Esta Plena on Rhapsody. Watch a  clip of Miguel’s band after the jump.

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