Sonny Rollins played at Central Park tonight, as part of the Summer Stage series, and what can I say. A month shy of 78 years old, the man is still a titan, a force of nature. Of course, nature has its cycles, and typically, Rollins in concert takes some time to crank up—you can almost see the gears grinding, then sliding, then grinding, then finally whizzing and swirling with jaw-dropping speed, effortlessly, pulling spins and loop-de-loops as they go. Tonight he hit one such peak in the second song, “Valse Hot,” where he shifted into sheets-of-sound, a la early-‘60s Coltrane. Amazing. Then the concert coasted for a while, sinking into occasional longueurs, the latter due (as usual) to his band, which simply isn’t in his league. It would be fine if they just comped along—kept up the beat, laid down the chords, plucked out the bass line—while Rollins soared to the stars and back. But he’s a very generous man, so he gives them way too much to do. Sometimes they get by (trombonist Clifton Anderson played really well), sometimes they don’t. Twice he traded bars with a bandmate—once with the drummer (who, when his turns came, played the same thing each time), once with the percussionist (who, puzzlingly, played nothing at all). A drag. But then an hour into the concert, the earth moved, as it often does at least once or twice at these events, which is why we keep going to see Sonny Rollins whenever we can. During his solo on “Sonny Please,” he locked into the rhythms of the cosmos and rode them in a dozen directions—a bop cadenza for a couple dozen bars, then an Aylerian wail, then intervals that sounded like something out of Berg (if Berg could do jazz), then something like the brushstrokes of a de Kooning action painting if de Kooning had played the tenor sax instead of the paintbrush, and on it went for 10 or 15 minutes, never repeating a phrase—except when he returned to blow the theme for a couple of bars every now and then, just to keep the rocket in orbit—all the while never losing his grip on the essentials: beauty, wit, swing, and the blues. There’s nothing like him.
I reviewed Sonny Rollins’ Carnegie Hall concert last Tuesday for the New York Times. Short version: The first half, when Rollins played in trio with drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride, was wondrous; the second half, with his usual sextet, had its moments but was comparatively a drag. I only hinted at this in the review, but the concert typified the puzzle that is Rollins’ career: why, in the past 40 of its 50-plus years, has this titan of the tenor saxophone—the most inventive living improviser in jazz—chosen to play so often with musicians so clearly beneath him?
Newk's Time was the third of four albums that Sonny Rollins recorded for Blue Note, and it's the second reissued by Music Matters Jazz, the audiophile house that does up the Blue Note classics right, each title mastered at 45rpm and spread out across two extremely quiet slabs of vinyl. MMJ has already released Sonny Rollins, Vol. 1. That leaves Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2 and Night at the Village Vanguard (itself a 2-volume album). I hope they put them out too at some point. If they do (does this need to be said?), get them all.
Rollins was signed to Blue Note in 195657, one of several transitional periods and an almost absurdly prolific one. He recorded not only the four Blue Notes but also Saxophone Colossus and Freedom Suite for Prestige, Way Out West for Contemporary, and over a dozen sessions as sideman, for various labels, with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Dorham, and Abbey Lincoln. Listening to all these albums (for the most part, a riveting experience), you can hear the subtle-then-transformative changes in Rollins' soundand thus in modern jazz itself.
Newk's Time is particularly revealing in this sense. . .
A few thousand jazz fans are feeling lightheaded this morning. They saw Sonny Rollins’ 80th-birthday concert at the Beacon Theater in New York City last night, and they’re still marveling (especially those too young to have witnessed giants walking the earth in great number) that, finally, they’ve seen a concert that made them tremble and that people will be talking about years from now.
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?
Bad news. Last June 15, in my
first entry of the “Jazz Messengers” blog, I broke the news that three months hence, Sonny Rollins, the world’s greatest living tenor saxophone player, would be playing a rare trio concert at Carnegie Hall—with Roy Haynes (one of the two greatest living drummers) and Christian McBride (an outstanding young bassist)—and that his own record label, Doxy, would release the results on CD along with a similar, recently unearthed, never-before-heard trio session that Rollins played at Carnegie 50 years earlier.
About a month ago, I lamented that Sonny Rollins, the greatest living tenor saxophone player, had decided not to put out a CD of his Carnegie Hall concert of last year with Roy Haynes and Christian McBride. Rollins was dissatisfied with his playing and so he canceled his release-plans.
A trend of sorts has taken hold the past few years: albums (in most cases, multi-disc boxed sets) capturing not just the highlights of a jazz concert but the whole concert—or a whole week’s worth of concerts, the entire run of a gig at a nightclub—every note of it.
Smalls is, well, a small jazz club in New York City’s West Village and, while far from the most comfortable establishment in town, it’s certainly among the most authentic and dedicated. The cover is cheap, the audience is youthful (two facts that are probably related), the musicians are usually the best up-and-coming players, and established masters sit in now and then too. (Last week, Albert “Tootie” Heath played drums with the Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson.)