Sonny Rollins, Live at 80, on CD
Photo: John Abbott
A year ago, almost to the day, I raved in this space about Sonny Rollins' 80th birthday concert, which I'd seen the night before at the Beacon Theater in New York City. I wrote: "A few thousand jazz fans are feeling lightheaded this morning," still "marveling" at having finally seen "a concert that made them tremble and that people will be talking about years from now."
This week, Rollins released a new CD, Road Shows, Vol. 2, which consists mainly of highlights from this concert, and I opened the package with some trepidation. Would the music, as a purely audio phenomenon, hold up to my memory of it? Or did my dizziness at the time stem, at least in part, from the thrill of being there, as part of the audience, at an event of such high expectations?
The answer: Yes, it holds up. This is a dazzling album, a showcase for a jazz improviser whose mastery leaves all other living tenor saxophonists in a dusty shadow.
I have seen Rollins in live concert a couple dozen times in as many years. Usually there's a 10 or 15minute stretch when the world stands still, the hair stands on end, and he uncorks a solo that locks onto some rhythm of the earth. The rest of the concert might be a bit vague; his band might not be up to the standards of the leader; but that quarter-hour of magic makes it all worthwhile.
At the Beacon concert, which went on for 2½ hours without intermission, nearly all of it was breathtaking.
The evening was star-studded with guests, and the highlight came toward the end, when Ornette Coleman, who was also 80, shuffled onto the stage and the two traded fours and eights on "Sonnymoon for Two" for 15 minutes or so. (They had never before played together in public.) Ornette got off to a shaky start (he hadn't warmed up back stage), but after the first few bars, he made the song his own; Rollins met him halfway toward "harmolodic" land, and then they went off on a meeting of minds and souls that was something like the duet between computer and alien-spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Musicologists will be analyzing this for years. In the meantime, we can gape.
Much praise as well for Roy Hargrove's solo on "I Can't Get Started;" Christian McBride and Roy Haynes' agile anchoring on the Sonny-Ornette exchange; and Sonny's new, stripped-down band, his best in years.
My only problem with the album is curatorial. The first and last of the disc's six tracks, "They Say It's Wonderful" and "St. Thomas," come from a concert in Japan that Rollins played around the same time. I'm very glad to have the former, but I would rather have a multi-disc boxed set of the entire Beacon concert. It's also a puzzle why Rollins (who produced the album and released it on his own DoxyJazz label) included "In a Sentimental Mood," on which Jim Hall plays lead and Rollins doesn't play at all. And "Sonnymoon" should have been the final or penultimate track, as it was at the concert. On the CD, it's Track 3, and as a result, the rest of the album, great as it is, comes off a bit anticlimactic.
But these are quibbles. Anyone who loves modern jazz needs to get this album. The sound quality is pretty good, too.