Here Comes Sonny

How hard can it be?  Don't answer that.

How hard can it be?  Don’t answer that.

The AJW is hitting next week, after a three-month hiatus.  This will be the 20th year for the project, so it had to be focused on somebody special.  Appropriately enough, that somebody is Sonny Rollins.

I won’t pretend it isn’t a bit intimidating, as a tenor saxophone player, to go onstage and play the music of the world’s greatest living tenor saxophone player.  Some would call it a foolhardy enterprise.  But as Mel Gibson said during his first SNL monologue years ago, when musing on why he would risk his movie career by doing live comedy on national television:  “I just don’t always think things through.”

As it turns out, SNL was the least of his future worries.  Hopefully I can avoid that level of self-immolation.

But back to Sonny.  One reason this is so humbling is that Sonny is still out there, playing live and exhibiting the drive and energy of players a quarter his age.  I’ve seen him twice in Austin at Bass Hall, and the man is a force of nature.  Fifteen-minute improvised solos?  Piece of cake.  Two hour sets with no breaks?  Bread and butter.  Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound?  It wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

Same reason that Thelonious Monk’s tunes were barely covered by anyone but him until after his death, and then the floodgates opened.  While the man strode the planet, nobody wanted to risk that encounter, however remote.

There’s a lot to admire about Sonny Rollins, but one of the biggies–and one that we plan to tell kids about–is the infamous period leading up to The Bridge recording.  In 1959, at the early peak of his career, he took a self-imposed sabbatical from performing and recording, in order to practice his horn–mostly on the Williamsburg Bridge, connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan.  He was there most nights, frequently for hours on end.  His goal, as he stated in his self-effacing manner, wasn’t so much to transform his playing as it was to simply improve it.

His people in the industry–manager, booking agents, festival promoters, recording execs–had to think Sonny had gone nuts.  Who disappears for two years in jazz and expects to come back to an audience?  What was he thinking?

Sonny didn’t care about all that.  His life has bordered on asceticism for many years, and this was just the first public manifestation of it.  And two years later, when he came off that bridge and into the studio, he was a Force of Nature.  The Bridge was the result.

Listen to that title track and you hear what I mean.  Sonny eschewed piano altogether and went with guitarist Jim Hall, to allow him the harmonic space to expand in whatever direction he chose.  The tune’s structure–basically a familiar foray into “Rhythm” changes–is made into a minefield by alternating the head rhythmically between cut time and waltz time, every four bars of the A sections, then back into cut time on the bridge.

Then they do it during the solos.

Oh.  Mah.  Gawd.  Guess which Sonny Rollins tune we will not be attempting live.

Other than that, everything is fair game.  And using my Leader’s Prerogative, we are also sneaking in a few Clifford Brown tunes from his too-brief collaboration with Sonny–tunes like Gertrude’s Bounce, Tiny Capers, Jordu, and Kiss and Run.  I have loved these arrangements for so many years, it will be a thrill to play them live.

Joining us are the usual suspects, plus a few fresh faces.  Look for James Polk, Floyd Domino, Glenn Rexach, Michael Stevens, Adrian Ruiz, Jimmy Shortell, Rob Kazenel, and Kevin Scott.  If there’s a weak link in there, I challenge you to find it.

So, tomorrow–one and only rehearsal.  Tuesday–workshops begin.  Thursday–performances begin.  May 31st, 2014–come up for air.  In between–just be Like Sonny.

Wish me luck.

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