[JPL] Sonny Rollins review

Tom Reney tr at wfcr.org
Tue Aug 29 12:15:44 EDT 2006

Newk in New York.  Hope springs eternal: Victor Lewis on drums; Bob Cranshaw playing double bass!

August 29, 2006
Music Review
Down From the Mountain to Warm Up and Shine 
Few jazz musicians have been more mythologized in their own time than the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins. A half-century ago, Mr. Rollins made an album that Prestige Records titled "Saxophone Colossus," with a liner essay and cover photograph invoking one of the Seven Wonders of the World. His career since that landmark has been at once brilliant and fitful, punctuated by sabbaticals and lulls that only burnished his legend.

But every couple of years for the last decade, Mr. Rollins, who will turn 76 next week, has descended from Mount Olympus, otherwise known as upstate New York, to perform a free concert at Damrosch Park as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. These concerts, always among the most anticipated jazz events of the season, can be relied upon to draw an audience of thousands, rain or shine. 

The flock that filled the park on Sunday night was rewarded with roughly two hours of quintessential Sonny Rollins: a performance that surged, flagged and ultimately prevailed. For some in the audience it surely served as confirmation of Mr. Rollins's godlike stature. For others, perhaps, it was a reminder of why mythology might actually be selling the man short. 

Mr. Rollins opened with his most characteristic device, a buoyant calypso. He announced its title as "Nice Lady" and treated it as a warm-up exercise. The same slightly perfunctory feeling carried over to "Someday I'll Find You," a waltz by Noël Coward. Mr. Rollins's only improvisation on that song was a nearly 20-minute stretch of four-bar exchanges with his drummer, Victor Lewis. 

It was on the next tune, an original 12-bar blues called "Nishi," that Mr. Rollins first hit his stride. Over a brisk walking bass line by Bob Cranshaw - on an acoustic instrument, rather than his customary electric - Mr. Rollins fashioned a solo of mounting strength and imagination. He treated each chorus as a discrete episode, though there were several motifs, notably a muezzin-like cry, that kept returning. On more than one chorus, Mr. Rollins pushed toward a tonal center outside the established key. 

The following number was another waltz, which sounded at first like the Dana Suesse-Edward Heyman ditty "You Oughta Be in Pictures." It turned out to be more serious - the serenade from Ricardo Drigo's ballet "Les Millions d'Arlequin" - and a good showcase for both the trombonist Clifton Anderson and the guitarist Bobby Broom. But Mr. Rollins was a distant presence throughout the song. 

After the next one - "J. J.," an original ode to the trombonist J. J. Johnson - Mr. Rollins bade the audience goodnight and farewell. But he seemed to sense that the gesture was premature. So the band played another calypso, "Don't Stop the Carnival," this time featuring a dramatic conga solo by the percussionist Kimati Dinizulu. Then came a standard, "I See Your Face Before Me," which Mr. Rollins overlaid with a sturdy and logical solo, the best of the evening so far.

What came next was even better: an unaccompanied cadenza that took Mr. Rollins through the emotional spectrum of his playing, and through seemingly dozens of musical quotations. In one stretch, modulating keys and elasticizing time, he flirted with the "Tennessee Waltz," and then quoted, back-to-back, "I Thought About You" and "Look at Me Now." In the hands of another player, this might have seemed cloying or overtly conceptual. Mr. Rollins made it a personal outpouring. 

His final citation was Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful," and it stuck: the band joined Mr. Rollins in a walking 4/4 swing that was irrepressible in its sense of joy and release. "O.K., this is it now, for real," Mr. Rollins said, midphrase, during his solo. He was referring to the concert, and he was right in more than one sense.

Tom Reney
"Jazz à la Mode"
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