Sonny Rollins at 80
In the past decade or so, we’ve come to expect 10 or 15 magical minutes from a Rollins concert, a long passage, maybe two, of transcendence—when the saxophone colossus unlocks a new passageway into the heart of a song, then bursts through with a solo that takes it where no mortal has flown—and that’s enough to make up for the hour of tentativeness.
Last night, Rollins played tentative for the first few minutes, attacking the same phrase over and over, building up his rhythm, maybe taking the measure of the house, then blasted off and never came back. I’ve heard Rollins play better solos than last night, but this was the best sustained playing I’ve heard from him—through ballads, blues, calypsos, the whole gamut—in maybe 15 years: two-and-a-half hours of playing, uninterrupted by intermission or even a long pause.
His band (guitar, bass guitar, drums, congas) is more cooking than any band he’s had in years. And the guests! Roy Hargrove, blowing his trumpet with more virtuosic clarity than ever. A reprise of the trio with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes, soaring well beyond their brief appearance at Carnegie Hall three years ago. (Haynes is 85, and still swishing the cymbals with that expansive rhythm. I couldn't help but wonder: Are he and Rollins the last two men alive who played with Charlie Parker?)
Then out comes Ornette Coleman! and the crowd went wild. He and Rollins, the same age, haven’t ever played together on stage before. (In the late ‘50s, when Rollins was out in L.A., making his albums for Contemporary, the two of them once or twice played together on the beach north of Santa Monica, but I’m pretty sure that’s it.) They went back and forth, playing in two different styles (though Haynes and McBride hoisted a unifying anchor), but Ornette played beautifully (after a couple of squawks), and he spurred Sonny to unclimbed heights of free improv. It was shiversome stuff.
Then all the musicians came out once again, to play a closing calypso (except for Ornette, who doesn’t do this sort of thing). It swung like crazy. The lights came up, and everybody looked in a daze. Did that really happen? Like all Rollins concerts these days, it was recorded. Maybe the titan of the tenor, intensely self-critical, liked it too, maybe he’ll even release it.