Through his six recordings as a bandleader, tenor talent Eric Wyatt has basically been performing unspoken tributes to Sonny Rollins. Wyatt calls Rollins his actual/musical godfather and has a way of injecting his passion for bebop and affection for geniuses like Rollins, Charlie Parker, and Pharaoh Sanders, into virtually every note he plays. Wyatt’s latest, The Golden Rule: for Sonny, (Whaling City Sound) is his inimitable way of paying tribute to those strong boppers of the past, joined by talents that have been contributing valiantly to the vibrancy of today’s jazz scene—guitarist Russell Malone, pianist Benito Gonzalez, trombonist Clifton Anderson, tenor JD Allen, and emerging youth like Giveton Gelin on trumpet and pianist Sullivan Fortner. Together, the posse exudes both class and bold promise as well as dashes of melodic invention. It is in this alchemy—blending experience with youth, merging tradition with progress—that Wyatt does his greatest service to jazz.
ArkivJazz: Eric, The Golden Rule is a fabulous recording. Obviously, a tribute to Sonny Rollins from a sax player is a very big project. You have your own sound and you also bring your memories and experiences of Sonny Rollins to the recording. So tell me, how did you actually meet? Was he a friend of your father? I know that your father was also a musician.
Eric Wyatt: I don’t think you have enough time for this story! I have some great memories. You know some people can forget things, but I remember things so vividly as a child. I remember the first time that he came to our house. We lived in a very bad neighborhood…up in the Brownsville section of East New York. There were gangs, murders, and people getting robbed. I knew guys who were murdered before I was 17 or 18 years old. Anyway, Sonny came to our house one day with a big crate of cherries. There were five of us. It was myself, two brothers and two sisters. So, I remember this guy comes over with this gigantic crate of cherries and we could eat as much as we wanted. So, we thought he was cool. Then, the other thing was that my mother had six sisters and four brothers, and my dad didn't have anybody ever come to the house that we could relate to as family. When we looked at Sonny, we thought he was like my dad's brother because he was just so comfortable, and he was such a nice guy. You know, like your uncle who brings stuff to kids. That was my first remembrance of Sonny. The second remembrance was that my dad and Sonny were once roommates back in the 50s, and my dad used to drive some of the musicians that worked with Sonny. They met each other around the early 50s in Harlem. Sonny told me that my dad had actually met his mother first. I think that he helped her push a shopping cart. I was very inquisitive and had a lot of questions, and Sonny kept in touch with me after my father had died. I don’t want to say this incorrectly, but I believe my dad met his (Sonny’s) mother and then they became friends, and he knew Sonny was a saxophone player. At one point later, Sonny was going through his substance abuse stuff, and he was roommates with my dad. He had told me, “I carried a stick when I met your father,” and I thought it was some kind of drug reference, you know? They had all these words for that, but then he said that he was a hobo at that time, and he had the whole ball with his clothes on the end of a stick. He said that he lived with my dad when he wasn't really doing well. Later, I found out from my mother that my dad used to practice with Sonny out on the bridge. There was also another time when I went with my dad to drive Albert Dailey to play with Sonny at a concert in Storrs, Connecticut. So, we went to this concert, and that was the first time I really understood that, hey, this is that guy. I was about 11 years old at this amazing concert, and I saw that Sonny was so generous with his time. He would sign every autograph and take pictures with everyone that waited. He always had people waiting for him, no matter what he did. I remember having access to the stage and getting on the drums. He opened the door of the dressing room, and said “Hey, who's on the drums?” and it was me. He said that I was a drummer, and told my father to buy me a set of drums. I got a little toy set of drums that didn't last long, but later I got a saxophone and I stuck with it. He played the Bottom Line each year, and we kept going to those shows. One day my dad said, “I want you to bring your horn. I want you to sit in with Sonny.” I was 23 or 24 and played alto at this point, and I'll never forget, he said “Sonny, he’s ready.” I’ll never forget what Sonny said. He said “Umm, okay. Maybe he is and maybe he ain't, but we won't do that tonight.” So, you know, it's just been like a long family relationship. I’ll never forget when my father was in the hospital that Sonny came almost every day. My dad was in the VA hospital near with Sonny used to live. He just was always been a consistent person in our lives.
AJ: What is wonderful about it for you as a player is you have that relationship and you had those connections, but you play like Eric Wyatt, you don’t play like Sonny Rollins.
EW: I'm going to tell you that one thing that my dad instilled in me, was to be an individual. As much as he played Sonny's records and also ‘Trane and Cannonball and Bird, he said to maintain who you are and to not copy. My dad would never let me read the solos in the Charlie Parker Omni books. He would say “All right. You played the melody, now play these changes. What do you think? These are the chords. This is the main road map of the song. Play and make music off of these chords, play A Minor then go to B, and so on.” It was weird when I first did it because I really didn't know how to approach it, but he made me think about the music in a whole other way.
AJ: Well, you know, so the last thing Sonny Rollins would want is to find a player that sounds like Sonny Rollins. He's going to look for the next player with something to say and he obviously heard that in you.
EW: You’re right, I knew not to copy him. I knew that to take one phrase or an idea just wouldn’t work for me because I was not taught that way. It's just something about being an individual that I learned from that relationship with my dad.
AJ: Tell us about the band you put together for this new record.
EW: This was something I had to do in my lifetime, and I wanted to do it before Sonny passed. Honestly, the credit should go to Neal Weiss, the owner of the Whaling City label, because he really got it. After my Look To The Sky record we were talking and he asked what I was thinking about doing. I said, “I don't know if you're going to want to do this because I have an idea, but I don't know what it's going to cost.” What I wanted to do was to record some Sonny Rollins music. In just the past year and a half, I had played in Italy, Russia, Australia, and Malaysia, and in each one of these programs I played Sonny's music. A lot of saxophone players aren’t playing the music that Sonny did, other than his most popular songs
AJ: Yes, there are a half dozen of those tunes that are played all the time.
EW: Right, I knew his songbook because I knew him as a kid. I would buy every Sonny Rollins album that came out, so I really wanted to get guys that played with Sonny. But the irony of it is that when I put the session together, I realized it was 12 guys. Now, the reason it became 12 guys is because there are the three drummers. There are the two drummers that have played a lot of gigs with me, Chris Beck and Charles Gould. Willie Jones was also somebody that Sonny had asked me about once, he worked with Sonny for a brief period. Then you have Russell Malone, who is one of Sonny's favorite guitarists. He likes Peter Bernstein as well, but me and Russell are very good friends. Tyler Mitchell is a good friend of mine and played with me back in the 80s when I was coming up, we reconnected, and he plays in New York now. Then you have Eric Wheeler, who played on my last record. Giveton Gelin is another amazing young guy…he's on scholarship to Juilliard. Then, of course there’s Clifton Anderson, he knows all of Sonny's music, and knows how to arrange the harmonies. I’ve played and recorded with him on a few albums.
AJ: He played with Sonny for years...correct?
EW: Yes. He's Sonny’s nephew. I had always looked up to these guys as superior, elite players when I was just coming up. I started playing out of town with these guys and started seeing how this whole thing works. I always had a good response, and ironically Clifton calls me up one day and leaves me a message saying “Hey man, if you're not busy next week. I'm recording and I'd like for you to play on a couple of tunes. The band is Al Foster, Bob Crenshaw, and Richard Corsello,” So, right away I’m thinking, ''Hey, these are Sonny Rollins’ guys.” [laughs]. So, I said yes. That was the first time Richie heard me in the studio, and he said “hey, he sounds like Sonny!” I was like, “what?”, but I understood what they meant when I heard it later. So, it became a thing because I told Neil I want to get all these guys. Now, the irony is that the day that I spoke to him, I called Clifton, because I wanted to let him know that I think we’re going to do this record. I said that we’ve just got to get all the guys in the studio, but I don't know their schedules. So, Clifton says hey, hold on one second and then he put Sonny on the phone. Sonny said “hey, godson.” And I said “Ohhh, hey Sonny!” I told him I was going to record some of his music and asked if he was ok with that. He said he was OK with it, and I said that I wanted to record some stuff that nobody’s playing now and enlighten this next generation of saxophonists. So, then I called Neal back and told him that I just got the OK from Sonny. I picked these guys and I called them up one at a time to talk about it. Sullivan Fortner was brought in because I wanted to do a tune for Roy (Hargrove). He played in Roy’s band, and Roy just loved Sullivan.
AJ: He's an amazing talent.
EW: He's such a sweetheart guy. So, I called the studio, and got a date scheduled. Then I called those guys back, and every one of them could make it. I booked a 10-hour session and it was just like a family reunion. Guys came in, and everybody liked each other. Everybody knew who was playing on the first two songs, who was playing on this one and that one, it was great. JD Allen, who I developed a good relationship with over the years, called me on the Saturday before the Monday of the recording and we started talking. Then I mentioned the recording, and he said he wanted to come by there. At that point I remembered the great relationship my dad had with Sonny. Similarly, here's a nice guy that I have a relationship with, who respects me and who I've known since he got to New York at 20 years old. I figured I should have him come on and we can play something together. It's camaraderie, and a respect for each other's playing, and a respect for Sonny. I wanted to make this because Sonny’s still here with us, and a lot of those guys that he came up with are gone. I wanted to do it now because you never know how much time he has promised, and I don't know how much time I have promised.
AJ: We're all glad you did because it's one of the releases of the year. It just sounds organic, like it was meant to be.
EW: Well, I just wanted to honor Sonny. He taught me so much about confidence and respect. I’m hoping it'll cheer him up and make him realize that when he’s not here, somebody’s still going to be thinking of him. So many great musicians have passed and either nobody plays their music anymore, or you don't hear anything but the same songs they wrote when they were in their 20s. .
AJ: He’s always been an artist that pushes things.
EW: You know, because I had known him, I do stuff that really pushes the envelope. It's just so exciting that I have so many stories and memories of him.
AJ: I thank you for the disc. Just to be chatting and hearing his stories, it's wonderful. You can't make this stuff up and you were there and lived it and know the man. Hats off to you and Neal for getting this project done.