sonny skies

A quarterly magazine takes some time till publication. So here's my piece in the Winter issue of JAZZIZ, inspired by Sonny Rollins and, sort of, by my brother Leslie.

Blu Notes

Winter 2010

Sonny Skies

by Larry Blumenfeld

Pull quote: "It was a metaphysical experience, not a musical experience. You had to be there."

It was the best thing I'd ever done for my older brother Leslie -- a seventh-row seat to Sonny Rollins 80th birthday concert at New York's Beacon Theater in September. Back in the '70s, when I was listening to Billy Joel, Leslie was into modern jazz. I couldn't wrap my head around the music he listened to then -- Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Rollins. A few years later, while he was off studying music at college, I grew to appreciate those LPs enough to steal them before heading off for my sophomore year at Boston University.

Though he earns his living in computers in Jacksonville, Florida, Leslie remains a dedicated reedman, playing on weekends in wine bars and restaurants. (I like him best on tenor sax, Rollins' instrument of choice.) But he had never heard Rollins in person. So with Leslie turning 50 and Rollins turning 80, I figured it was time to get the former in front of the latter. Who knew how many more chances there'd be? I sprung for concert and plane tickets.

Rollins no longer performs in clubs. The Beacon show was his first in New York in three years, making it the sort of hot ticket rare these days in jazz. Rollins was billed with his working quintet, plus trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Christian McBride and "surprise special guests." Since Rollins' last New York concert, at Carnegie Hall, featured him in trio with McBride and drummer Roy Haynes, I suspected Haynes would be among the surprises. At least I hoped so. At Carnegie, Haynes and Rollins had maintained a musical dialogue loose as a barbershop conversation. For all his harmonic genius, Rollins' rhythmic prowess (and an adventurousness grounded in that ability) has been just as elemental to the brilliance of his epic solos. Haynes' driving and utterly organic brand of swing time -- which has anchored music by Louis Armstrong through Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and today's best -- is the perfect complement. I couldn't wait for another taste of that hookup. I happened to interview Haynes for an article about jazz families the day before the Rollins show. He confirmed that he'd be on the date. "And there's someone else, too," he said, eyes agleam. "Not gonna say who, though."

In the days leading up to the show, I listened to some of Rollins' recordings: "Saxophone Colossus," the Prestige classic he recorded at 25; "The Bridge," which marked his return after a three-year hiatus, in 1962; and "Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert," recorded at a Boston venue just four days after Rollins evacuated his apartment near the World Trade Center in 2001. On that last one, his bold, blistering sound, always potent with feeling, sounded just a bit more emotional. "Maybe music can help," he told the audience then. "I don't know. We have to try something."

The Beacon Theater show was scheduled for September 10, one day shy of the ninth anniversary of 9/11. The site of the former World Trade Center was still largely a hole in the ground, around which swirled vague and angry controversies. Protests were mounting against the proposed Park51 Islamic Cultural Center, the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." Some preacher in Florida was organizing a Koran-burning event. We needed still to "try something."

Despite the duck-like hobble with which Rollins took the Beacon stage, I don't know why I worried about his vitality. He played for more than two hours, fierce from the outset, strongest at show's end. If he couldn't walk that well, he managed, once he began blowing, to pretty much dance. Rollins' working band, including longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw, guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Kobie Watkins and percussionist Sammy Figueroa, performed with precision and well-calibrated drive, especially on the opener, a new Rollins tune titled "Patanjali." When Rollins soloed, it was all there, intact: the bold and bristling tone, the ceaseless, unfurling ingenuity, and the focus and force of breath to carry it all through. And he was just getting started.

Maybe his selection of the ballad, "I Can't Get Started" was intended as an ironic comment. More likely, Rollins chose it as an accommodating vehicle for Roy Hargrove's lovely flugelhorn tone. "Rain Check," a Billy Strayhorn tune Rollins recorded in 1955, made for fast-grooving traded 8's between he and Hargrove. The trumpeter, who is precisely half Rollins' age, was up to the task, projecting just the right balance of fiery pride and sincere humility as Rollins tossed him one challenge after another. 

Jim Hall was unfortunately still tuning his instrument a third of the way into "In a Sentimental Mood," yet he managed a lovely solo toward the end. Better -- beautiful, actually -- was a bossa-based "If Ever I Would Leave You," which he and Rollins recorded in 1962.

When Christian McBride came onstage, sure enough, there was Roy Haynes along with him. Their trio section began with Duke Ellington's "In My Solitude," which Rollins essayed with all sorts of harmonic license at a stately pace until Haynes jumped in for a solo, the brilliant bombast of which erased any thought that, at 85, he had lost any degree of vigor or daring.

The three began Rollins' "Sonnymoon for Two." Rollins stepped up to the mic and said, "There's someone backstage who's got his horn, and he wants to wish me a happy birthday." I guessed it was tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who I'd seen in the audience earlier. The band vamped, facing stage left. No one. Pregnant pause. Finally, out strode Ornette Coleman. He bowed gently to Rollins, then listened intently as Rollins messed masterfully with both the key and meter of the 12-bar blues.

Coleman eased in with almost otherworldly gentleness and little formal relationship to what had come before. Yet it all fit and flowed. Haynes didn't miss a beat, literally. McBride seemed momentarily flustered, then found his footing. After Coleman had walked out, a little voice in my head had begun fairly screaming: "Rollins and Coleman have never performed in public before! This is historic!" That voice wisely shut up. This was happening now, before me. And it got even better.

Rollins began to play. The best I can do to describe what he did is this: Once Coleman had played his version of Rollins, Rollins offered up Sonny playing Ornette playing Sonny. Something like that, anyway. Rollins had entered the key-less space of Coleman's music, fully free of the blues form of his tune. He played in something close to Coleman's ineluctable dialect, yet through his own familiar voice.

Days later cornetist Graham Haynes, Roy's son, gave me his analysis. "Sonny and Roy and Christian were pushing the 12-bar blues to its furthest abstraction," he said. "My dad and Sonny both have ways of opening up rhythmic possibilities that seem to defy time and space. They do this on a regular basis. That's where they live. But Ornette is going to play Ornette. Melodically, harmonically, he opened things up to the point where what they had been doing was neutralized. It became something else. The rhythms were not covered up, but they become illusory. The most fascinating thing about that episode is that someone could have recorded it, and it would sound great, but it would never approach what actually happened. It was a metaphysical experience, not a musical experience. You had to be there."

I was. So was Leslie.

If Rollins' encore, his beloved calypso "St. Thomas," performed with all the musicians except Coleman, was an anticlimax, it nevertheless served as closing ritual for an experience with meaningful overtones. The next morning, September 11th, I watched a plane, maybe Leslie's, slide across a sky as cloudlessly blue as the one pierced by terrorism nine years ago. Yet I wasn't thinking about destruction. My head was filled with something beautiful and inscrutable heard the night before, born of creativity. 

December 12, 2010 10:58 PM |


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