Want a listening challenge? Get Newked!

Check into your favorite jazz club near closing time and savor how loose the atmosphere is. The final hour on a Saturday night has always been my favorite time, because that's when the musicians who have finished their gigs in other clubs walk in with their axes and, if the act on the bandstand is cool about it -- and each one usually is -- the sitting-in and the cutting contests begin.

It's a great music lesson, as a rule, even if you're not a musician. You can get the feeling that a lot of style is being worked out right before your ears, as though you were the invisible spectator of a drill conducted by a spectral music teacher. And out of it comes art.

The capacity for thrill depends on many factors, of course, including the hipness of the audience, the compatibility of the musicianly minds, the prowess of each performer on the bandstand. And that means that each has labored in the solitude of his own studio to gain mastery of his instrument.

There are legendary stories of John Coltrane's falling asleep next to his saxophone after having played a gig and then gone home to practice more scales. The same stories circulate about Jimi Hendrix, who carried his guitar everywhere he went. In each case, the artist's technique, his very style, depended upon that time of solitude to whet the edge of his talent.

None has been so public about his dedication to solitude than Theodore Walter Rollins, known professionally as "Sonny" and intimately as "Newk."

Despite a solid reputation that began in the late 1940s, Rollins has never rested in his quest for sharpening his musical blade. In fact, he is well-known for taking himself out of the touring and recording schedules upon which he relies for a living in order to go to the woodshed -- or, more accurately in his case, one of the many bridges that surround Manhattan -- in order to practice as though he were a novice.

That's an admirable trait, and it shows in his work. Rollins has a grand sense of interpolation -- that is, the borrowing of a phrase from a familiar melody and inserting it into the tune at hand -- and his harmonic faculties don't fail him, even as he dissects the chords behind a melody and chooses to work only the high notes in them.

The result is the musical equivalent of the barnstorming pilot who maneuvers his plane in unexpected and thrilling ways -- frightening one time, stupefying another and never executing the same move twice.
In 1989, I caught him at an outdoor festival on the shores of Lake Erie and, as I recall, the first tune lasted about 15 minutes -- and that was before he played a five-minute cadenza. As the crowd was going wild after he finished, my wife turned to me and said, "I think he's very good. But he doesn't know when to quit." That lovely lady and I aren't married anymore, but I don't blame Sonny for that.

Recommended listening: "Way Out West" [Contemporary, 1957]; "Newk's Time," [Blue Note, 1957]; "Don't Stop The Carnival" [Milestone, 1978]; and "East Broadway Run Down," [MCA, 1966]. These are, of course, personal favorites, but any Rollins will do, even when he is inconsistent in his approach.

Tonally, there is a difference between early and late Rollins, but he is so malleable an artist that, even as I write, I think of him sitting leaning against a walkway beam on the Brooklyn Bridge, working out his next move. And when he makes that move, I'll be glad to hear it. .