Rollin' on

Music - Richard Cook keeps the beat with the grandmaster of the sax

We like to hang on to surviving musical giants and believe in them no matter what, because there's an unspoken certainty that we will never see their like again. The more that commerce grips young musical talent, the less likely it seems that unique and iconoclastic personalities will make their own way forward. Sonny Rollins, now 71, came out of the bebop era and personified its virtuosity, while turning that language to his own extraordinary ends. His golden era was the second half of the 1950s, when he recorded one masterpiece after another, and set a standard that has inspired, and defeated, fellow saxophonists ever since. Despite some famous sabbaticals, Rollins has been a familiar and frequently encountered performer, while never quite challenging the almost ruthless genius of those few invincible years. But he remains a sovereign figure, and the jazz audience is devoted to him, fretful if he releases an indifferent record or plays an unremarkable gig. A courteous and thoughtful man, Rollins remains modest about his work and dissatisfied with its shortcomings. He doesn't like listening to his own records, and has resolutely stayed away from the kind of all-star sessions that many jazz labels seem to think is the right way to present their famous names.

He has, in fact, been with one company for the past 30 years, and it is fitting that this company is one of the last long-time independents, Milestone. Although he has flirted, often unconvincingly, with pop material and sometimes modish settings, Rollins tends to make the same record every time. His sidemen attend him like well-meaning courtiers, knowing that they are there just to fill in the surroundings. Rollins doesn't really joust with other players. He battles with himself and his tenor saxophone. In his youth, he fashioned a superbly hard, bronzed tone, a suitably powerful voice for the most authoritative improviser in jazz. As time passed, it grew mottled, and now it seems to have the quality of bruised yet still resilient leather. This Is What I Do (his latest album), from its bluntly apposite title inwards, is no-fuss, down-the-line Rollins.

The programme is a parade of the resources that he has been using for decades: a new calypso, "Salvador"; a sort of blues, "Charles M"; a bouncy tribute to another, almost forgotten tenorman, "Did You See Harold Vick?". Rollins wrote some distinctive themes at the start of his career, but, since then, his composing has largely been little more than a prop for his improvising. "Salvador" is a catchy, riffing melody that does no more than it has to - it is the vehicle for a rambunctious swagger through the different planes and scales of the horn. The repetitive theme seems more joyous every time he digs it out of the instrument. Rollins relies more than ever on his grainy mid-register and, when he twists on a phrase and growls out the notes, you wonder if jazz can get any more exhilarating than this.

Still, Rollins's use of standard songs is one of the things that has made him inimitable. He was the first musician to think of plundering for ideas the likes of "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?". The most improbable songs have been wrestled into plausible features. He doesn't destroy them, as some musicians would. As brainy as his performing always is, he can play with heartbreaking candour. This time, he chose an ancient Bing Crosby vehicle, "Sweet Leilani", and made it into a sort of gospel preacher's meditation. "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square", which Rollins loves to play at London concerts, is an old man's rapture. Then he wraps up the record with, of all things, Dorothy Lamour's torch song "The Moon of Manakoora", husking grandly through the melody, lagging imperiously behind the beat and (considering the song is played as a waltz) dancing with a heavyweight's abandon, righting himself just as it all seems to be toppling over.

It is as if he has all the time he needs, the sort of thing that can seem like hubris in a young jazz player. With Rollins, however, one is irresistibly reminded of his own reminiscences of Billie Holiday. Whenever Rollins was playing in New York in the 1950s, he would try, after his own night's work had finished, to catch one of Holiday's late sets in Manhattan, just to hear how she toyed with the beat. The tradition carries on, and a grandmaster endures.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again