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It's been said that saxophone legend Sonny Rollins is just as good as jazz greats John Coltrane and Charlie Parker were. It's a reputation he pretty much holds alone because at age 79, Rollins has outlived nearly all the jazz musicians of his era.
The "saxophone colossus" will return Wednesday to the Mondavi Center in Davis, which he said has "very good acoustics we (musicians) salivate at." He'll bring to Jackson Hall some of his classics as well as new material from an album expected to debut next year.
Born in New York City, Rollins picked up a saxophone as a teenager. By the time he was 20, he had played with jazz legends Thelonious Monk, J.J. Johnson and Bud Powell.
In the decade that followed, he composed some of his best-known songs, including jazz standards "Doxy," "Oleo" and "St. Thomas." His bebop bandmates in those days included Miles Davis, Max Roach, Coltrane, Parker and Clifford Brown.
Like many jazz musicians, Rollins is self-critical.
"There's never absolute perfection, but I have something in focus and I want to get as close to it as I can get," he said. "My own performance has been progressing as the years have gone by and I'm very optimistic about the future at this point."
He was part of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet when Brown died in an auto accident. His good friend's death had a profound effect on Rollins and he began the practice of channeling fallen musicians.
"I used to channel (Brown) sometimes, and I got his spirit, (but) after a while I let his spirit go on because I didn't want to be greedy and keep him back here on Earth," he said. "So I let him go on. Same with the other guys."
As much as he respects his contemporaries, these days Rollins doesn't want to be known only for his associations with them.
"I don't feel any responsibility anymore for standing up for them or upholding their legacy," he said. "Now it's all me and I have to stand on my own, and I'm perfectly willing to do that. I've had years and years of associations. And I'll rise and fall now on my own accomplishments."
Rollins credits his diet and regular exercise, as well as staying away from smoking, for his longevity. He's also known as a private and solitary man who enjoys meditation and solo practice.
Rollins has been called reclusive and is famous for taking sabbaticals. For several years, he would practice alone on the Williamsburg Bridge. "I love playing outdoors because you can communicate with the sky," he said.
He's not content doing the same thing and likes to explore new musical ideas every day, Rollins said.
"I'm trying to make my own music as relevant and contemporary as hip-hop is," he said. "I can say it has a certain validity and, for its time, it's sort of what bebop was for our time."
Though he agreed that hip-hop is a genre that falls under the umbrella of jazz, Rollins said he isn't quite ready to perform a hip-hop song.
"You really have thrown me into a conundrum on that one," he said with a laugh. "(Other musicians) can use hip-hop in a way I can't and I don't know if I could make the transition."
A free pre-performance lecture will be given at 7 p.m. by Jeremy Ganter, associate director for programming at the Mondavi Center. The Alumni Center, AGR Room 8. The concert begins at 8 p.m. at Mondavi Center's Jackson Hall, 9399 Old Davis Road. Tickets are $17.50 to $55 and are available at the University of California at Davis ticket office and online here .
1. Credit: Jamie-James Medina.
2. Credit: Michael Jackson.