Sonny Rollins, who made his reputation playing music in the revered jazz tradition of Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, is currently stirring up controversy by performing an amalgam of raucous rock and jazz.

The 47-year-old musician, considered by many to be the finest living tenor saxophonist and who was variously a colleague of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach, has been accused by many of abandoning his artistic principles.

"How can he play that garbage," muttered a listener Thursday night at the Showboat Lounge, where Rollins opened a four-day engagement.

Fans have split into two camps. Many longtime listeners, remembering his numerous masterful recordings and public appearances over the last quarter-century, say he has betrayed their trust. New and young listeners embrace his art warmly.

"I feel my own playing is the same," observes Rollins. "I'm not doing naything pointedly different. I still have the essence of jazz in my playing - improvisation.

"The change may be in the rhythmic things we do that are contemporary. We also play new material."

Indeed, there is emphasis on heavy, pounding rhythms and repetitious melody in his quartet's performances. Sometimes, however, it seems as if the saxophonist work, independent and vigorous, soars above the underlay.

His repertoire includes Stevie Wonder's popular "Isn't She Lovely?" and Rollins' won catchy tunes such as "Charm Baby" and "Island Lady."

His work is still marked by a robust, rhythmic vitality, deep, bone-dry tones and glistening melodic patterns.

"Some people don't like what I'm doing," he acknowledges. "They express that."

Then he relates the story of a man who encountered him on the street after a performance at the Village Gate in New York.

"He didn't like the idea of a Fender (electric) brass," recalls Rollins. "He really didn't like it. I sympathize with him. But I've got to go a certain way. I'm not trying to lose people, I haven't got it all together in my head where I'm going.

"There's a certain energy that's important in music, especially the music I play. Now, to play standards and older songs you need a group of people to interpret them. It requires a certain energy and familiarity.

"Many young musicians today are not familiar with the standards. But many guys of my own age don't have the energy to play these things in a fresh way. A high energy level is very appropriate to my playing."

Rollins, 6-feet-1 1/2 and a trim 190 pounds, says while he's looking for a younger audience, he'd like to retain the longtime listeners.

"Musically, I know I've got to do this because that's the way I feel now," he declares. "I'm not ashamed to be involved with contemporary music. Some of it is very good."

Rollins says his new image is not designed to make him a "star." He explains, "I don't think I'll ever be a commercially successful musician. I've always been a cult figure. Even now I don't work steady - only when I want to."

The saxophonist's career has been managed by his wife, Lucille, for the past three years.

"We save money this way," he says. "You know that you're not being ripped off by an agent. I know there are good agents. But she's someone I can trust to represent me in the best possible way.

"We can travel together. That is important in keeping a marriage together."

But, says Rollins, it has taken some adjusting on his part to accept hsi wife as an equal business partner.

"I was raised to believe that the husband goes out to earn the living and the wife must be protected," he notes. "But she [hits wife] has to have something to do. She's not the stay-home type. I hate to deal with agents. And she doesn't mind it. She's good at it. And it's good for us."