Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
This is not Sonny Rollins live at the Kennedy Center — but it is Sonny Rollins live in 2009.
This is not Sonny Rollins live at the Kennedy Center — but it is Sonny Rollins live in 2009. Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images
The biggest names in jazz have appeared at the most prestigious concert stages for the greater part of a century now. In this relatively short life of mine, I've been blessed to see a few such examples: Ornette Coleman at Carnegie Hall, Cecil Taylor at Jazz at Lincoln Center (hoo boy), Dave Brubeck at Newport. Still, the idea of going to a Jazz Concert still seems a bit weird every time I do it. Here's a music that still lives the bulk of its life in nightclubs and bars, with access for all casual passersby, but brought on special occasions to the high ceilings and red velvet of a performing arts center.
But if anyone in jazz deserves that sort of honor, it's Sonny Rollins. I could go on a while with hyperbole, but the simplest fact is the most striking: He's been one of the most important voices in jazz for about 60 continuous years now. He dresses the part, sporting a white blazer which became a bright red dress shirt after intermission. And of course, his new trademarks: a big, all-white beard, and sunglasses.
So what's it like to hear the man perform? Five further observations:
1. His imagination is restless. You know how some people say Rollins is a great "storytelling" soloist? Like, how he'll develop a full narrative arc to his improvisations? ("Blue 7," from Saxophone Colossus, is a great example.) It seems as if he's no longer content to follow that model. Actually, he really hasn't been for a great many years — see 1966's East Broadway Run Down, or any one of his many extended stream-of-consciousness solo cadenzas from live shows. But it was just stunning to see him leapfrog from idea to idea, abandoning promising avenues prematurely and blurting out others whenever the spirit struck him. He treats compositional themes as suggestions to be embellished, and often ends the tune without playing the head out. He flirts with the atonal, but always resolves just enough to move on. It is as if Rollins is relentlessly challenging himself to play something he's never played before, some new permutation of pitches and smears and rhythms. And even if that search proves impossible, and he has to halt intermittently while plotting his next moves, it's no matter: his live act is about the journey, not the destination.
2. He absolutely commands his horn. Even at the age of 79, Rollins' tone is powerful, flexible and full bodied. His low honks are as powerful as his upper register and vibrato are beautifully controlled. Now, his back may be hunched, and he more or less duck-waddles around on stage, but with the horn in his mouth, all appears effortless. (It helps that Rollins is physically imposing, tall and broad-shouldered, and manhandles his tenor sax as if it were a twig.) On the night's opening tune, and the penultimate blues head "Nishi," he took solos which were at least five minutes of unadulterated blowing. I sat literally on the edge of my seat, it was so exciting. He was easily the dominant, most spirited voice on stage, and probably could have been without amplification too.
3. It was a concert. Jazz gigs come in all flavors — the background music restaurant hang, the basement bar with a rapt listening audience in the know, the overwrought posh club where everybody feels either over or underdressed. Set in the grand, four-tiered Concert Hall at the Kennedy Center, with wraparound seating and a massive pipe organ, this was clearly a Concert Event, to the tune of $35 to around $100 for the privilege. (Dear FCC: I went as the guest of the Washington Performing Arts Society, if you must know.) It's the sort of thing where big money changes hands, and where people wear suits to introduce the performer, and where ushers give you programs and show you to your seats, and where not everybody knows someone in the band because there are just too many people for that to be possible, and where young people look out of place no matter how many there are. (There was even an intermission.) Sonny Rollins knows this. He no longer plays clubs, and very much appreciates the type of attention afforded jazz by its formal presentation. And while the honor would feel a bit weird in most other contexts, the standing ovations upon entrance and exit proved: If anyone in jazz was perfect for this treatment, it's Sonny.
4. It is really busy. Busy as in "containing lots of noise": For whatever reason, Sonny Rollins likes to give you a lot of information to process. Last night he was joined by what's become a regular touring sextet: trombone (Clifton Anderson), guitar (Bobby Broom), electric bass (Bob Cranshaw), percussion (Victor See Yuen) and drums (Kobie Watkins). All kept it relatively simple, coloring within the lines — by which I mean impeccably swinging but subservient to Rollins — but still: that's a lot of rhythmic noise for an enormous, echoing room. At times, the two calypso-tinged tunes he called ("Nice Lady" and "Don't Stop The Carnival") certainly benefited from the polyrhythmic spree afforded by so many bodies making music, though at others it seemed like overkill for a potentially delicate ballad. (Also, why electric bass?) But Sonny hears something in all that sound around him, and everyone got to make a worthwhile statement of some length, so I shrug.
5. Sonny Rollins is a human being. Sometimes you'll go to these jazz shows and you won't hear a word from the bandleader — whether from shyness or some wrongheaded stagecraft — until he or she announces his bandmates and leaves. But when Sonny took the spotlight, he couldn't help but acknowledge his standing audience, and after his first tune, he told us a few stories in his weathered but buoyant voice. (He had a boyhood crush on a girl eight years his elder in the area, he admitted.) He moves around. He gestures with his free hand. He faces the crowd at the front of the stage. He generously credits, no, enthusiastically shouts out his bandmates. It is as if every time he stops playing, he is genuinely delighted that applause exists — that so many people could care enough to understand even half of the weighty statement he's just pronounced — and infinitely thankful for the opportunity to share it. One gets the impression that he is a man of generous spirit — from my too-brief meeting, it is my personal takeaway as well.