Despite achieving a place in the jazz pantheon, Sonny Rollins is not content to rest on his laurels. 

Reaching for the Brass Ring

Sonny Rollins
The Big Gig
Brown's Island
8 p.m.
Saturday, July 24

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins is a living legend with the emphasis on "living." While his past work earns him a place in the jazz pantheon — The Village Voice calls him "the last of the jazz immortals" — Rollins focuses on today.

"I started playing during the golden age in the middle of the century," Rollins recalls during a recent phone interview. "But I hate it when someone calls me a bebop giant. It is as if my statement has already been made. I still have a glimpse of something new that I want to present."

Richmonders can check out Rollins' latest sounds when he headlines the Big Gig Brown's Island concert July 24.

Throughout his 50-year career, Rollins has developed one of the most distinctive voices in the music. Combining the big sound of tenor great Coleman Hawkins with bebop, blues, Caribbean and world elements, he spins out melodic runs of unmatched invention. Playing with intensity, humor and a sure-footed sense of rhythm, Rollins does not fit into a category: He creates one.

"I'm striving for a real sense of pure improvisation, a 'style' that transcends all styles," he says. "I want to play in a way that says something deep, something that is instantly great. Every now and then I hear it, and I know it's worth the effort. It's like the gold ring; it's there, but it's not just hanging around. You have to reach for it. I've spent a whole lifetime and I'm still trying."

Success in jazz is a group effort, and Rollins has assembled a strong working band with Clifton Anderson on trombone, pianist Stephen Scott, Victor See Yeun on percussion, Bob Cranshaw on bass and drummer Perry Wilson.

"We've been together for several tours and a recording [1998's "Global Warming]. Most of the time we're tight, although sometimes I want to pull out my hair," he says, laughing. "Sometimes somebody else's."

Still, he has realistic expectations. "It's not fair to expect the kind of groundbreaking that was possible when I started," he says. "There is so much history; it takes a long time to assimilate. It's hard to find anyone now who is really pushing the boundaries, although there are some good young kids coming up — like Kenny Garrett, David S. Ware and James Carter.

"Jazz is a real art that develops at varying paces. It's not like pop where there is a new fad every two weeks to sell more records."

Rollins made his own high-visibility foray into pop music as a featured artist on the Rolling Stones 1981 album "Tattoo You." "They called out of the blue, and I played on three songs," he says. "They did their thing and I did mine. I think that I was able to express myself."

Rollins views the current popularity of overtly commercial "smooth jazz" with underwhelmed tolerance. "The reason those smooth jazz guys are playing what they play is because the innovators played what they played," he says. "I have nothing against it, as long as serious players get to have careers as well as Kenny G and Grover Washington."

As for the concert-hall repertory approach to classic jazz compositions, Rollins says "Wynton Marsalis is providing needed exposure; jazz is so underrepresented in our culture ... It's OK to recreate the music of Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington the way classical musicians recreate Brahms. But if the only way to hear jazz was to wear a black tie and go to Carnegie Hall, that wouldn't be good."

While Rollins at his best is without peer, he makes no guarantee that any performance will be great. "I am a very tough critic on myself — with very high standards," he admits. "I try to get as close as I can every night. If the audience loves a performance, but I think it was lukewarm, I'm not satisfied. I feel this is the proper attitude to have, and I have it."

Guarantee or not, seeing a true master of the great American art form of jazz is worth the


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