No doubt playing alongside Sonny Rollins, a bona fide jazz legend whose inventiveness, energy and humor have convinced many he's still the finest jazz saxophonist alive, has proven a heady, unnerving experience for many young musicians. But if anyone knows what it feels like to suddenly find himself playing in the shadow of giants, it's Rollins himself.

"When I started out, I was extremely fortunate," says the soft-spoken Rollins, who makes a rare club appearance at Blues Alley tonight and tomorrow. "In many of the groups I was in -- with Bud Powell, [Thelonious] Monk, even with Miles [Davis] and John [Coltrane] -- I was sort of the youngest guy around. However, I didn't try to act young. I didn't want to be thought of as 'the young guy.' I wanted to be regarded as a young musician, and that's what I worked toward."

Rollins has recruited a number of young musicians for his band over the years, partly for practical reasons -- "they're more free to travel" -- but mostly because they're more attuned to changes in music, or likely to keep him on his toes, he says. And some young musicians, like local saxophonist Ron Holloway, have been known to travel to Rollins' home in Upstate New York just for a few pointers.

"Ron did what I used to do," says Rollins with a laugh, recalling his boyhood in Harlem. "I went to Coleman Hawkins' place and waited and waited and waited for his autograph. Then I learned some stuff from the very great Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis. I went up to his house and I was a real pest."

Rollins, 58, isn't one to dwell on his accomplishments, though he's clearly proud of his associations with the likes of Monk and Powell ("they were about music, and nothing else really mattered"), Lester Young ("as sensitive as anything . . . a sad story because he felt rejected by society") and trumpeter Clifford Brown ("a revelation, and a very calming influence on me").

Nor is he particularly comfortable with the praise critics have lavished on some of his recordings. With little formal training, he's aware of his limitations. Music for him, he says, always has been a matter of "on-the-job training."

In fact, in 1958, when he took the first of his sabbaticals from jazz, Rollins practiced in solitude on the Williamsburg Bridge near his home in lower Manhattan just to help close the gap he felt there was between his performances and the glowing assessments of his work. Since then, his growing interest in yoga, exercise and eastern philosophy helps keep things in perspective, he says.

Of course, the reviews haven't always been entirely favorable. During an audacious and highly publicized concert in the Museum of Modern Art Sculpture Garden in New York last summer, Rollins performed without accompaniment before the public for the first time. Both the performance, which attracted more than 2,500 people, and the subsequent recording drew mixed reactions, with a number of observers noting that while Rollins' virtuosity was never more apparent, the music sometimes lacked focus and balance.

As it turned out, Rollins has a mixed opinion of his performance as well. He says the idea of a solo recital is something he'd been kicking around for years. He originally planned to do it in a low-key fashion, seated in front of a music stand.

"But the crowd was so large, and the event was so electrically charged, that I thought a more aggressive approach was necessary," he explained. "I wasn't completely happy with it, but I wasn't dissatisfied with it either. We had to leave a lot off the record because it was too long, and I think we lost something there."

It's worth noting, though, that Rollins ad- endcol mits he's never completely happy with his work and seldom listens to his own recordings. That he found playing a cappella for an hour rewarding, despite its physical demands, speaks for itself. "Actually," he says, "I think I'm going to arrange to do another solo concert somewhere."

Meanwhile, there are other projects. Next month while touring Japan Rollins will premiere a symphonic piece he and Finnish composer Heikki Sarmanto have been working on for 18 months. Scored by Sarmanto for the 100-piece Yomiuri Symphony, the composition resembles a saxophone concerto, Rollins says, but adds that "the whole point of it is to be unclassifiable."

Rollins is both philosophical and pragmatic about the future. He's convinced jazz will always have a limited appeal. It's never going to be widely accepted, he feels, because "it's too difficult. People want to hear somebody singing or see somebody dancing. Listening to music without words has always been an intellectual pursuit, especially jazz and classical music. I've accepted that, and every jazz musician has to accept it. It hurts, but that's the way it is."

The task ahead, as Rollins sees it, is the same one that confronted him in the beginning -- educating himself. "I still think I'm learning," he says. "Music is an endless thing. You never learn it all, and performing is a difficult thing, because what you have in your head doesn't always come out right. So it's a matter of learning. It's still a quest.