Sonny Rollins at 80

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.

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.

hector p's picture

I was at that show in the lower balcony. I have seen sonny a few times before, but this was the best I have ever seen him.This was an amazing show I hope the issue it on dvd and cd.When ornette came out the audience was stunned. I could people saying is that ornette.oh ny of the best shows I have ever seen. Also jim hall came alive at one point.

Nick's picture

My consolation was that he came to Montreal for the jazz festival and we had front row seats, he was fantastic.

Hugo Rosa's picture

Anyone knows IF this concert was recorded live and even if it will be on DVD, CD or better yet SACD?!It seems like it should have!

Fred Kaplan's picture

All of Sonny Rollins' concerts are recorded, and have been for the past few years, if just for his personal archive. Whether this concert will be released, in some form, is another question, as yet unknown, even, I suspect to him.

Tony's picture

The success of this performance, I think, is due to Sonny playing with musicians of stature. His own backing band is mediocre, and doesn't challenge him. They are the musical version of the NY Generals. When you have guys like McBride and Haynes, and most especially someone of Ornette's stature, good, even great things happen. I wish there were more such performances. Yes, I know, he's 80, and we should be glad to have any performance, but still.....

Fred Kaplan's picture

Tony - Generally, I'd agree with you; in fact, I've written exactly the same thing. But his new band is hot and lean. In the hour or so before Haynes and McBride came out, they were egging him on with elegance, swing, and energy.