Sonny the sax king

At age 80, Sonny Rollins is indisputably the greatest living jazz tenor saxophonist, proved last night throughout a 2-hour set at New York’s sold-out Beacon Theater in which harmolodic sage Ornette Coleman sat in, backed by drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride, on “Tenor Madness.”  “Sonnymoon For Two”. Rollins was hunched and hobbled when he came onstage, but once he started blowing he stood upright and blasted his big bold sound with energy that brooked no diminishment of strength or inspiration, bending only to fire another fussilade of freshly wrought invention as if from his guts. 

Guest brassman Roy Hargrove paced Rollins melodically on “I Can’t Get Started” and one of Sonny’s vamp-based songs; Jim Hall had to tune up his guitar while starting to interact with Sonny on “In A Sentimental Mood,” but found his place, and Sonny’s standing band w/ guitarist Russell Malone, elec. bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Kobie Watkins and conga-player Sammy Figueroa was better than solid — but it was the Old Man himself who kept raising the stakes with gruff, hearty, spirited, virtuosic roars and runs. 

“Jazz,” Rollins announced, “our world music, the music, the umbrella music that covers all other music!” And that’s how he played it — all embracing, devotionally celebratory, generous to the max but topping everyone else onstage. 
When Ornette came in with his own melodies in his own key, changing the pace, Sonny listened then found within himself some Ornetteisms which he fed back, opening up his rhythmic framework and making everything sound right. Coleman (also 80 years old) seemed frail and stood humbly next to Rollins, but retains his penetrating sound on alto — playing a second solo (rather than trading 4s, which appeared to be Sonny’s plan) with bluesy, splintered cries and his characteristic hiccuping phrases, he did harmonize with Rollins briefly at the rendition’s end.
When Sonny traded notes and phrases with Hargrove, the excitement was akin to what aficionados hear in the Jazz at the Philharmonic Recordings of 60 years back. When all parties except Ornette came out for an encore version of “St. Thomas,” one of Sonny’s signature calypsos, the free-for-all carnival still revolved around its ring-master. Previous Rollins concerts in New York of recent memory faded by comparison to the entirety of this one; critics who must carp may claim a couple of the vamps lasted too long, but each successive chorus offered Rollins another opportunity to shred complacency, to grasp a new angle on a seemingly simple interval and kink it into startling, angular grace. 
When Sonny left the stage for the night, ushering all the others off before him, he raised a clenched fist in acknowledgement of the wild ovation he had earned from his audience and as a gesture of triumph over the expected deprecations of time, over superficial changes of taste, over any uncertainties that human creativity can prevail. Jazz is the umbrella music, Sonny holds the umbrella high, setting a glorious standard for musicians and listeners to admire and aspire to. This concert will be legendary (in part because every well-known jazz journalist from NYC and some from Boston, Philly and probably Washington, too, were in attendance). Long live jazz! Long live Sonny Rollins!
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  1. Eugene Hayhoe says

    Just hope somebody recorded it in good fidelity & that it gets out there so the rest of us can hear it……
    HM: As Sonny now runs his own Doxy label, I’m sure it was recorded, but whether the entirety meets his own high standards for issue or not will be the question.

  2. says

    I would still like to find his “Concerto for Tenor Saxophone and Orchestra” that I heard on the DVD “Saxophone Colussus”, and appears to have never been released on CD or .mp3

  3. alan kaplinsky says

    Unfotunately, it was not recorded.
    HM: Are you sure? That seems unlikely. If Sonny didn’t have it recorded himself, somebody certainly smuggled in a device to capture the event.

  4. Jim Eigo says

    This concert was recorded according to knowledgeable sources I’ve heard from.
    Sonny looked and sounded great. There were so many musical highlights, but Ornette was the BOMB! What a contrast in styles. Sonny the consummate melodist who can twist and bend any melody to his own will and Ornette possibly the most original improvisor in the history of jazz not changing or altering his style to suit the moment definitely inspired Sonny to dig down deep, which he did. What a glorious moment for jazz. What a glorious moment to be alive and to witness to jazz history.
    Jazz History was made at the Beacon Theater last night in celebration of Sonny Rollins 80th.
    Jim Hall, Russell Malone, Bob Cranshaw, Kobie Watkins, Roy Hargrove, Sonny Rollins, Sammy Figueroa, Christian McBride, Roy Haynes and unannounced surprise guest Ornette Coleman.
    I hope they recorded this show, because we may never see the likes of this ever again.
    I managed to get off a few pics sitting in the back of the orchestra.
    Have a look here:

  5. says

    Had to stop by a record store today after reading this, and scoop up Newk’s Time and Rollins Plays for Bird. Rollins always comes on like a new discovery. He was way ahead of his time.
    I must say I think a case could be made for Evan Parker as greatest living tenor saxist, although I would have to agree that Sonny’s place in jazz history is more central. And, at his best of course, he’s just as intricate while being much more listenable.
    I have a theory: Coltrane’s style evolved as a result of him failing to emulate Rollins. “Like Sonny” (Coltrane’s Sound) is a case in point. A phrase from Sonny beaten to death in an attempt to master it, while in the process turning it into something else.
    One more note: Ben Ratliff in his book on Coltrane made the apt observation that Coltrane’s sound was “slightly undercooked.” Coltrane was an auditory Magellan, but he could never reach Sonny’s perfect symmetries.
    HM: Thanks for this astute note, Gordon. If Trane failed to emulate Sonny, he created an alternative which is perhaps heavier in influence and implications. No Trane, no Evan Parker, one might postulate, whereas Evan and Sonny have had, as they’ve each developed very little common interests or less direct lineage. I don’t find Sonny’s playing symmetrical at all — though I find his asymmetries well balanced. Trane seems to me the most Bachish of the two.
    Also, I don’t know what Ben is referring to re Trane’s sound being “slightly undercooked” — unless he’s referring to his recordings except maybe the Miles work up until he signed with Impulse. I cannot correlate “slightly undercooked” with Alabama, Impressions, Song of the Underground Railroad, Africa, After the Rain, etc.
    But each good listener to their own subjective analysis, I suppose, and I’ll try thinking of SR as you suggest. While I’m at it, I recommend Sonny Brass/Trio.

  6. Kandie Webster says

    Thanks, Howard, for a wonderful write-up of an extraordinary and memorable event.
    Thanks, Jim, for sharing special photos.
    And thanks to Sonny for having an 80th Birthday celebraton!
    Kandie Le Britain Webster in Washington State ~ jazzylover59