Of course I knew who Sonny Rollins is. He is a master of an art form that has resonated with me for over 2/3 of my time on this planet. I had all the right albums and knew the lineage as well as any other student of Jazz. Trouble was it didn’t hit me viscerally in the same way some of his contemporaries did. I have had reverential posters on my wall of John Coltrane; Miles Davis; Duke Ellington but never Sonny Rollins.

I just finished a 700 page biography of Sonny’s life and music written by Aidan Levy. It took me a long time to traverse this Tome as I would stop and listen to the records mentioned and fill in the gaps of music I had not yet heard. By guided listening, I was able to rebuild a more accurate view of Sonny Rollins. Hearing the amazing Bud Powell but listening for Sonny… Realizing that although I have several Clifford Brown-Max Roach albums, I didn’t have the one they made with Sonny nor the Max Roach plus albums… rectified.

Focussed listening always brings great results. As various albums came up in the book, I’d stop and listen. Brilliant Corners (Thelonious Monk) The Fabulous Fats Navarro, Art Farmer, Kenny Dorham. All great albums in my collection where I never really remarked on the sax player being Sonny. Each new listen bringing me closer to the general consensus that Sonny was one of the greatest improvisers in modern jazz.

Of course I have been aware of and have played several of Sonny’s songs. Oleo, Doxy, Pent-Up House, St. Thomas, Tenor Madness, Airegin, etc. A very long list of what are now part of the standard Jazz repertoire. great tunes, great vehicles for improvising.

I listened to Saxophone Colossus, Tenor Madness and then Live at the Village Vanguard which I initially had dismissed because it was a trio (no guitar or piano). My ears were not ready back then. I held so many opinions then that I disagree with now.

There is a famous story where Sonny stopped performing and took a sabbatical to reimagine his approach and strengthen his mind and body. he practiced daily on the Williamsburg bridge in NYC. When he decided to end his exile he emerged with a quartet that included guitarist Jim Hall. The album “The Bridge” was and is one of my favourite discs. I realized this time around that my ears were mostly attuned to the guitar and the rhythm section and I was taking the leader soloist for granted. i listened intently several times focusing on elements I had heretofore ignored and the disc became alive and complete. It was as if I was experiencing something for the first time. A richer experience because I had been awakened.

As a music student in the late seventies and early eighties I was learning so much about jazz all at once. i would scour used record stores for names I recognized and would snap up their discs for cheap. Some were gems, others, duds. I picked up three or four titles from Sonny’s catalogue and was disappointed by each of them. According to the book, the period where these albums were from was the weakest era of his career. he was marrying improvisation on a more ‘pop’ or ‘commercial’ backing. I am not against this kind of music per se, but at the time I was a hardcore bop fanatic and I felt that Sonny was slumming it. It is no wonder that I dismissed the entirety of Sonny off this random sampling. I feel differently now. I know more. I hear better.

The gift in all of this is that by him being under the radar for most of my life, I am discovering remarkable music daily from this same source. The motherlode of riches is like when a miner hits a huge vein of precious ore. Eldorado!

Reading about Sonny’s personal and spiritual journey has also deepened my experience of his music. i have read several biographies of other heroes from the same or similar eras. Most of my musical heroes did not live to experience old age. Easier, tidier to wrap a life already lived than one that is ongoing. Sonny is no longer able to play, but I am thankful for the richness of his oeuvre and what he has taught.

If I have ever said anything disparaging or disapproving about Sonny Rollins in the past, please forgive me. I was an asshole!

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