On the Sonny side 

Jazz legend Sonny Rollins kicks off the SF Jazz Fest

"All of my career I’ve felt that I’m a work in progress," jazz giant Sonny Rollins says. "I know there’s more music that I want to express and to do that, I have to be ready. You have to be practicing when the spirit comes because if you’re not, then you won’t be able to absorb. If you’re involved with your horn, the insights will come."

At 76, Rollins is ready. He rose to fame in the 1950s as an aspiring young tenor saxophonist, playing with the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He was compared to jazz deity Charlie Parker. But unsatisfied with his technical skills, Rollins famously disappeared from the scene between 1959 and 1961, taking daily trips to the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn to blow his horn as traffic rumbled nearby. He came back stronger than ever.

Now he stands as the last of the bebop-era tenor greats.

While reports circulated a couple of years ago that Rollins planned to retire in 2005, the man they call the Saxophone Colossus shows no sign of slowing down.

Last week, he released "Sonny, Please," his first studio album in five years, on his own newly launched Doxy label. And, in February, Rollins picked up a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental, for his emotionally charged live recording "Without a Song (The 9/11 Concert)." Rollins was at his home, six blocks away from the World Trade Center, when he witnessed that catastrophe firsthand. "I was just stunned by that and didn’t really have time to reflect on it until a few days later," he says.

On Sept. 15, 2001, he performed at Berklee College of Music in Boston and recorded his musical tribute, which he released in 2005 on the Berkeley-based Milestone label.

This week, Rollins kicks off the 24th annual San Francisco Jazz Festival.

Expect the unexpected — the stage is where his music really comes alive. Rollins has likened performing in concert to "having sex live," compared with the "cybersex" of studio recordings.

The stage, he says, allows him to tap into his creativity in a way that proves elusive in a controlled studio setting. "On stage, I’m able to travel to that mysterious place, that area of the subconscious or the higher consciousness, or however you think of it, but it’s that unknown place," he adds. "When I go onstage my mind is blank and I’m improvising. I’m in another realm. It’s sort of like people who go into a trance or people that you see at a religious revival meeting.

"I just kind of do it — I don’t try to do it, that’s just the essence of what good playing is. The music takes over and that’s when I play at my best."

CONCERT PREVIEW

Sonny Rollins

When: Friday at 8 p.m.

Where: Nob Hill Masonic Center, 1111 California St. (at Taylor), San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $25-$85

Info: Visit www.sfjazz.org

The San Francisco Jazz Festival runs through Nov. 12

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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