Sonny Rollins on Disco Monk

In May 1979, Sonny Rollins recorded his composition Disco Monk at the Berkeley, Calif., studio of Milestone Records for his album Don’t Ask. Two months later, Sonny performed the song at the Pori Jazz Festival, held at the Riihiketo School in Pori, Finland. Now that live version of Disco Monk appears for the first time on Sonny’s new album of concert performances: Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4 (Doxy). The live version is a masterpiece, combining a disco feel with ballad passages featuring the modernism of Thelonious Monk. I can’t get enough of the live version, especially Sonny’s solos.

Last fall, Sonny and I spoke by phone as he was choosing material for his new album. We talk every few months about a wide range of things—”life,” as Sonny likes to say. It’s always a revelation to listen to Sonny. His outlook on life is exuberant, optimistic and deeply philosophical. He wisdom makes me think. We also talked about the difficulty he was having making final selections for the new album. Sonny was torn between “the stuff that purists want to hear” and what he wanted to share. Sonny has never been comfortable hearing himself play on recordings, so the process was especially trying for him. At one point, he asked what I thought. I told Sonny to go with his heart, to make choices based on what felt good inside and not to worry about the purists.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.46.16 PM
Last night we spoke again about the album, and I told him how much I love the live version of Disco Monk, why it’s a critical work and how remarkable it was that he united a pop feel with the spirit of Monk’s arch originality. Here’s what Sonny said about the song:

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.48.18 PM
“I had been experimenting alone with the song in ’79, so when my band and I were preparing to record Don’t Ask, we rehearsed Disco Monk. I didn’t think it out. I just heard the song musically. Disco was everywhere back then—disco this and disco that. You couldn’t escape it. As you know, I love all kinds of music, so we started playing with this soulful, disco feel and I heard Monk in there. I wanted people to know that there were other things out there besides disco. Disco and Monk were supposed to be at two opposite ends of the spectrum. On one end you had disco, which some people thought was superficial. On the other you had Monk’s music, which others thought sounded strange. I wanted to bring them together—to show jazz fans that disco could be beautiful and to show people who loved disco that Thelonious Monk was special, too. You know, disco is great but here’s Monk, that it’s all one in the sense that all good music is one. By bringing the two together, I wanted to find something new in their togetherness, that there’s unity in their forms. That’s what I was seeking. That’s just the way I think, so the song was perfect for me. [Photo above of Sonny Rollins in 1979 by Ed Perlstein]

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.50.45 PM
“I didn’t play Disco Monk often in performance. Purists often misinterpreted what I was trying to do on the album with it. I knew that people who came to my concerts wanted to hear specific things and might not be ready to hear me play disco. I guess some thought I was selling out, that I was trying to record a disco hit. That had nothing to do with it. I wanted to show that these two very different forms of music were both great and could work as one. I think my new Road Shows album has a lot of that—showing all the different things Sonny Rollins can do.” Sonny paused and laughed.

JazzWax tracks:
You’ll find Sonny Rollins’ Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4 (Doxy) here.

JazzWax note:
On Saturday (April 9) at 2 p.m. (EST), Sonny Rollins will answer questions from fans live on his Facebook page. The audio chat will be moderated by Bret Primack and will last an hour. Facebook fans will be able to text their questions directly to Sonny. To participate, go here. After the live broadcast, the program will be available on demand at Facebook and YouTube.

JazzWax clip:
Here’s Disco Monk from Sonny’s new album, Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4 (Doxy), featuring Sonny Rollins (ts), Mark Soskin (p), Jerome Harris (b) and Al Foster (d). Dig Sonny’s command, shifting seamlessly between disco and Monk-flavored ballad passages. Also dig the hidden references to Monk’s music…

Disco Monk