Up-and-coming saxophonist Melissa Aldana is a tremendous admirer of Sonny Rollins (aka the Greatest Saxophonist…Ever!). Her latest album, Back Home, is in many ways a tribute to him, and to his influence on her when she was just starting out, hearing Sonny Rollins Plus 4—a Max Roach/Clifford Brown Quintet disc in all but name—and being inspired to switch from alto to tenor. It’s a trio disc, a configuration Rollins has frequently employed, featuring bassist Pablo Menares on bass and Jochen Rueckert on drums. The title track was written for Rollins; Aldana says, “He was one of the first reasons I started playing trio, because of the freedom that you have within the music, the interaction, the opportunity you have to express yourself and communicate with the other musicians.”
Back Home is out now (buy it from Amazon), and Rollins’ Holding the Stage, the latest in his Road Shows live series, will be released next month. It contains mostly 21st Century recordings, but there’s one rare gem tucked in the middle: a version of “Disco Monk,” from his 1979 album Don’t Ask, and never performed live since that year. Rollins and Aldana met for the first time last year, at the Great Night in Harlem salute to Rollins; he received a lifetime achievement award, and Aldana performed as part of the onstage tribute. So it seemed like a natural decision to put the two of them together on the phone, and have her interview him about the new album, his practice regimen, his feelings about improvisation and live performance, and much more.
Hello, Sonny? This is Melissa.
How are you, Melissa?
Good. I’m very excited and nervous to talk to you.
I’m very happy to have you talking to me.
Thank you for taking the time. This is such a huge honor. You’ve been a huge inspiration since I started playing, so I can’t believe I have the chance to talk to you for a little bit. I really appreciate it…I heard your CD and I really love it. It’s so great to hear you and to see how your playing has evolved through the years, and how you keep the music so alive.
Thank you very much.
So this is my first question: I was wondering why you decided to have your own record label, Doxy.
Well, I’ll tell you why that happened. The record industry, as you may have seen, has changed a lot in recent years, and it seemed like I might be able to make a better living for myself by putting out my own records. That was a period when everybody was doing it. All the musicians had their own companies, a lot of them did, and so I thought that wow, I would be able to do better for myself if I had my own company. And it’s a mixed blessing, because even though you have your own company, you still have to go to the big guys to distribute your records. So it’s really a distinction without a difference.
Yeah. And it’s been ten years, no?
It’s about ten years, I guess, yeah. I stopped counting.
That makes sense. I understand. The next question I have is more personal; what I’m wondering these days is, how do you feel about live performances, and how you get influenced by the audience or your feeling on the day? Do you always feel 100 percent inspired, and if not, how do you search for that while you’re playing?
Well, you know, there’s such a thing as what you’re doing now. You’re performing, and you’ve been playing for a while, and your father plays and so on in your family.
So it’s a matter of what you call professionalism. So that you learn to make a good performance whether you feel great that day or not. There’s a lot of days that I don’t feel as good as I do on other days. In fact, I shouldn’t even put it that way—I have to make a show, and a performance, so I go out and play. I never can tell how I feel inside until I start to play, and some days everything comes out right. Other days, you’ve got to be professional. That’s where professionalism comes in. You’ve just got to do a professional job, and people will like you and say “Oh, Melissa, great, great.” You might know inside that “Gee, this isn’t my best,” but the people have to understand that it’s a good professional job and they will appreciate it. For yourself, you might know that “I didn’t play as good as I did last night” or “I didn’t play as good as I did last week” or something like that. It’s a matter of, once you’re a professional, which you are now, and I’m very proud of you and very happy to see you getting the press people writing about you and liking you—I’m very happy for you and I congratulate you.
That means a lot.
So at the point that you’re at, you have to always be professional. Which I’m sure you are. And give a good performance, enough for the people. But for yourself, every performance—at least for me, I can’t speak for you. But for me, every performance was not my best performance.
Do you think you can get to that kind of connection with your instrument, even if you don’t feel like it before performing?
Oh yes, definitely. You have to always be there so that you can play, and you never can assume, “Oh, gee, this is a bad night.” You have to make every night a good night. Let me put it that way. You have to do that. It’s up to you. You have to make every night a good night. Now, that doesn’t mean that inside yourself, you might say “Well, gee, I played better last night” or “I played better last week” or anything, because this music we’re trying to play, improvisation, you’re not always going to be at the same level. It’s not going to happen. You’re gonna be good, better, okay, great, okay, great, good, just made it okay – that’s going to happen, because this is improvisation, and we’re trying to play the deeper parts of our soul, of our person. We’re trying to really do things which aren’t out on the surface. When I play, people ask me, “Well, gee, Sonny, what do you think of when you play?” And I tell them, I don’t think of anything. I don’t want to think of anything. I want my mind to be blank. I don’t want to think—I can’t think and play at the same time. You can’t do that. Because I’ve tried it. I’ve tried to have a nice little riff and a nice little idea that I can play, and I’ve thought about it like, “I’m going to come in tonight and play this real clever little idea, you know, and I’m going to be great, and everybody’s going to say, ‘Wow.’” And I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. Because every time I try to think to play that idea, the music is gone already. It’s moving fast. You see? You can’t think and play. Now, up to a certain point, of course you have to think and play. I know that. But I’m talking beyond that now.
Yeah, I know. I know what you mean.
Beyond that, though, you can’t think and play. You have to let your deeper soul play. Not think, but just let it come out of you, your deepest thoughts, your deepest emotion come out. And it’s wonderful when that happens, you surprise yourself. I’ve surprised myself—“Gee, how did I think of that?” I don’t know, it just comes out by itself.
I was wondering, how did you get to that state of mind? Did you feel like that when you were younger?
No, no. I learned this—You know what? I might have thought that, but I didn’t realize it. When I was younger, I might have done a lot of things which I’m just rediscovering to do later in my career. Because as you get famous—and you’re getting famous now—you’re going to change a lot of things you’re doing just to be more successful, and have people like you more, and this and that. So that’s okay. And then later on, you might realize, “Wow, I should do what I used to do when I was a little kid. I was doing it as a kid and I didn’t really realize it, that what I was doing was correct. And later I changed, trying to get more mature and a bigger name,” and this and that, and you get to the point of saying, “Wow, I was already doing this when I was a young girl, playing.”
How did you deal with pressure, when you were becoming famous, after all your albums and press? Did you feel a lot of pressure?
Well, how do you mean, pressure? How do you mean that?
Pressure from the media, or pressure to do another great album, or just from maybe personal pressure to become better…I guess, what I mean is, expectations from other people. Did you suffer from that?
Right, right. Well, this is, you know, you have to know who you are. And you have to get—and I think you already know this—but you cannot let what other people want from you, you can’t let that really influence what you want to do. Now, this is tricky to say, because naturally, every musician wants the public to like them.
Everybody wants the people to like what they’re doing. Now, you may be lucky, because your father and so forth grounded you already in playing and what you have to do. But you shouldn’t worry too much about what people want. And I’ll put it this way—you should know what you want. You should know what Melissa wants to do, and you should know what you want to practice, what you want to sound better on, what you want to be able to play a little more fluently, the sound—you should know that. And once you know that, never mind what people say. They’re going to say anything. You have to believe in yourself, and play what you know you’re working on. If you want to work on something new, people might not like it. That happens a lot. But if you’re good—and I’ve heard your playing; you’re good, you’re being accepted by a lot of people—just keep your idea of what you want to do, and never mind what people want you to do. I think you know already, ’cause you came from a musical family, so you know what music is, and you have an idea of what you want to play. Just follow that. Every night, just go out and try to be better. Try to get it better, and be better at what you’re doing.
Thank you! I have another question—I saw a great interview, I can’t recall exactly where, but you were talking about how a performance condensed ten years of practicing. That’s how you felt when you were playing a live concert. And I know you took some sabbatical periods to work on certain things you wanted to work on, and I was wondering if you missed playing, and what you were thinking while you were taking the sabbatical.
Well, I was working on my sabbaticals. I was practicing. But again, when I came out on the stage, I could play something in one minute and it took me maybe a long time to practice it, and it can come out on the stage in one minute and I know I’ve got it. So the stage is the place where you really get everything together. I love to practice, I’m always practicing. I’m practicing when I go to a job and I go to the soundcheck, I’m back in the room practicing. I’m practicing after the concert is over. Everybody’s going home, and I’m in the room still practicing. You know that? I mean, I’ve done that. So why am I practicing? Because I’m trying to get a piece of music in my mind. That’s what I’m playing for. I’m playing for the music. Sure, I want people to love me, but I have something in my mind, like you have something in your mind, you want to sound better. That’s the main thing. All the other stuff doesn’t mean anything…the only thing to worry about is that you make sure you keep playing what you want to play, what you want to work on. Make sure you sound as good as you want to sound. Don’t let people tell you, “Oh, gee, you’re great, you’re great” if you don’t believe it. See, that’s what happens to me. A lot of the time I’m playing and people say, “Oh, wow, that’s great, Sonny, that’s great,” and I feel like, “Oh God, I was terrible” to myself. So never mind what people say. You have to keep in your mind what Melissa wants to do, and make sure you’re getting that right.
You know, talking about this brings another question to my mind—how has your practice changed over the years. From when you were very young until now, how has it changed?
Well, the thing that I always do when I’m practicing now, at this stage, I might have some things I want to work on. I might want to work on, let’s say some scales, or something technical on my horn that I want to work on, some alternate fingering. Whatever it is. I practice that, but then I don’t just dwell on that. I practice free, I just let myself play. I have fun, just playing and having fun with what I’m doing. I get in what I have to get in, whether it’s long tones to get my embouchure strong, whether it’s scales I want to work on, whether it’s technical fingering, I do all that stuff, and then I just have fun. I just play. Because that’s what I am, I’m an improviser. So I just want to play and see what comes out.
Were you always like that, even when you were younger? I guess my question would be, sometimes it’s hard to get to the state when you practice and you just want to have fun. There’s a lot of things you might want to work on. So how do you get to that mindset, where you’re practicing and just truly enjoying it, and going with whatever it is?
Right. Well, that took a while, before I began doing that. At first I was practicing a lot, just trying to get my fundamentals. My rudiments. Trying to get my fingering and tone and scales and all that kind of stuff. So at first, I was concentrating on that, but as time went on, in later years, I did that—what I had to do—but mainly I just played. That was my practicing, just playing. So you see, you have to do some things, of course, some technical things you want to do. And I still have technical things I do. But mainly, at this stage in my career, I’ve been playing so long that I want to do what I love doing, which is improvising. So I do that just for fun, because I love to do it, just playing.
Has the way that you feel about playing and about the music that you want to play changed through the years, too?
Well, as you listen to music, you hear different things, you hear different musical styles, different musical genres change, and you incorporate that into your playing. Now, I understand that you used to listen to a lot of people—you listened to Don Byas?
Yes, of course.
That’s great. I love all those guys. Don Byas, Dexter Gordon, of course the great Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young—so your playing is going to be influenced by these people, and that’s okay. These are great people, they’re there to help us play, so that’s okay to listen to all of those guys. Those guys are great. You know, I’ll tell you a story about Don Byas—did you ever see Don Byas? No.
No, I never got the chance.
Okay, well, I never played with Don Byas. So when I first went to Europe, Don Byas had already been living there. So this is my first trip to Europe, and I came to a big concert hall in Holland called the Concertgebouw. It’s the biggest hall in Amsterdam. So I had a concert there that night, my first concert in Europe, and I’m coming into Amsterdam and got off the bus or car or whatever we were in and I saw this guy standing on the steps of the Concertgebouw. And who was it but Don Byas. And he had his saxophone with him. So we went into the Concertgebouw, went backstage, and he wanted to play, so we played together. He wanted just to hear me. He had heard a little bit about me, but it just shows the dedication and the love of the music that he had, just to hear somebody new and to encourage somebody new and to see what he could do with this new guy. It was great. It was a great story for me to meet him. He was always one of my favorites, still is.
He’s something else.
A phenomenal player.
I have another question that’s personal, but I’m sure a lot of young musicians feel this way—I guess I’m one of the last generations that will get to meet you or hang out with you and Jimmy Heath and George Coleman, among many greats, and I know that when you were growing up you had the chance to see these men live and be next to them. As you said, you met Don Byas, too. So what is left for the new generations, since we don’t have that kind of chance anymore?
Well, Melissa, these days, the new generation has the records. That’s what you have that we didn’t have. Sure, we had records, but not like today. You guys have records and tapes—everything anybody played, you’ve already got it. So that’s one advantage that can compensate for the fact that you didn’t get to see some of these people live, you know. That would be my answer to that question.
Also, these days, I think what I’m missing is the chance to play with a lot of great people. I know there’s a lot of great people in New York, but everybody’s doing their own thing, and being a bandleader it’s very hard to tour and it’s just harder and harder to get that kind of experience. You had that when you were younger, playing with a lot of great people, so what do you think would be a way to deal with that as a younger musician, not having the chance to play with an older person, or with somebody better who will kind of take you under his wing?
I know what you mean, exactly. Well, I don’t know, I don’t know. That’s difficult. In the days when I was coming up, they used to have a thing called the jam session.
Yeah, they still have a lot of those these days.
They still have jam sessions today?
Yeah, but it doesn’t feel like a place where you can explore something and really go for it, you know? So that’s why I was wondering if maybe it was different back then.
Well, the jam sessions were the same, but it takes a while—it took me a while before I got good enough to play on a jam session with these great people like Ben Webster and all of them. I couldn’t just go up when I was a young person, just get up with them, no. It took me a long time before I could feel right, or before the public would accept my playing with people. I had a lot of years before I could compete with Dexter Gordon and people like that. But then you learn from these people. Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins. So it is probably a little more difficult these days, because I don’t know if everybody plays together. Like you said, everybody is trying to get their own band and they’re not really competing right next to each other every day.
Yeah, I guess that is my feeling too, and when you go to a jam session, it doesn’t feel musical, it feels more about showing off, and who can play faster—I cannot get down when it comes to that, because I feel like it kills the spirit of the music, pretty much, you know?
Okay, then don’t go. [laughs]
I don’t go. I do private sessions.
No, don’t go to jam sessions then. You see, this is the way life is, because people now are going to be looking to play with you. You are getting a lot of publicity—you’re a good player, I’ve heard you, and life is putting you in a place where you’re the player other people are going to see. I used to go to see people, I wanted to see Charlie Parker, I wanted to see all those guys, and you are getting to the point now where you have to be Charlie Parker.
Wow. That’s crazy.
You know what I mean, though. You understand what I’m saying.
I was wondering if you still listen to a lot of music, what’s being recorded these days—the new people who are playing, the new records that are coming out.
No, I don’t listen to a lot of music. But that’s just me personally. As some new players come out, I have people sending me records. Sending me CDs—“Oh, listen to this new guy.” But as for sitting at home listening to records, I don’t do that anymore. I love music, but I don’t listen much. I’ve listened to so much music in my life, and there’s so much music already in my head, that it’s hard. Music is always there already. But that doesn’t mean anything—if I want to start listening to things again, I will. And I hear music, but when I’m home alone I don’t come in the house and put on a CD anymore. But I’ve done that all my life. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life. So right now I’m not doing that. But that’s okay.
Of what you do hear, what do you think?
It’s good. I’m very excited about the young players. You’re good, I like your work—Jimmy Heath told me about you when he first saw you.
I love Jimmy.
So it’s all good, it’s all good. And it takes a while before you can really—any of the young people, it takes a while before you can develop everything you want to do. It’s fine, you’ll be okay. And people are not listening to jazz as they were when I came up with Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane and Don Byas and all these great people, but the music is such a strong music that jazz will always be there for people. They’ll like it, they’ll come back. Jazz music is so great, you know, people in this country, they try to stop jazz. They didn’t have nice places to hear jazz, they didn’t play it on the radio a lot, they didn’t have television shows for jazz, they did everything to stop jazz, but they can’t, because jazz is such a beautiful music, it’s such a great spirit. It’s so great. So I’m so happy for you playing jazz, you’ve got a beautiful, wonderful life ahead of you playing jazz. Even though I just met you, I’m not your family, I’m not your father, but I’m proud of you just like they are.
That means the world to me. That means so much.
I’m proud of you just like you’re my own. So just keep going, keep playing. And as I said, always—never mind about what people say—know what you want to do and go for that. You want to make yourself the greatest that you can be. That’s what it’s about. Never mind—I don’t care what people say, they like you or they don’t—never mind that. It doesn’t make any difference.
I think this is the greatest advice a young player can ever get, coming from you, you know. It’s really, really inspiring, and I’m motivated.
Well, I hope, and I thank you. That’s what I hope to do.
I needed to hear this, and especially coming from you. This is very, very special.
Right. Right. I know it is. I know it is. I know what this music world is.
It’s hard, right? But it’s not hard when you do what you want to do. Inside of yourself, that’s what you stay with, inside of yourself with your music. You want to get better, you want to sound better. That’s your goal. That’s what you’re going for. Never mind the world. The world is there but it’s not there. What’s there is you, your spirit, your soul, playing that horn. That beats everything.
Yeah, that’s the spirit. And I thank you for reminding me of that. That’s what I felt when I was very young, as you mentioned in the beginning, when you pick up the horn for the first time, it’s just pure and free and love.
Of course! That’s what it is. So I know you’re getting a lot of publicity, but never mind all that. Popular or not popular, it doesn’t mean anything. What means something is you, inside of you, playing.