San Francisco Salutes Sonny Rollins
There are ordinary men and there are giants. And then there's the Saxophone Colossus.
The concert halls of San Francisco were ringing with that declaration in April, as the SF Jazz Organization devoted a week of its spring season to the greatest living saxophone master. Concluding the honors on back-to-back nights were a visit from the man himself and a four-way jam session celebrating his songbook.
Rollins' fans are legion, and they jammed Masonic Auditorium from floor to rafters to see their hero on April 13. As Rollins walked on stage in hipster sunglasses and a bright red coat, the entire assembly leapt to their feet in an instant ovation. Rollins wasted no time on introductions, kicking his sextet directly into high gear and striding all over the chords of his song selections with a powerful, rough-edged sound.
But Rollins didn't seem interested in self-glorification. He gave the spotlight readily to his sidemen, especially nephew Clifton Anderson, who turned in three jaw-dropping trombone solos during the evening. Anderson's high-octane, complex melodicism energized the band and gave visible pleasure to Rollins.
The sextet played nine tunes in a single long set that covered all stages of Rollins' career. One of the best was "Global Warming," a 20-minute Afro-Caribbean groove that saw pianist Stephen Scott double on kalimba and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu take off on a fabulous four-conga solo. Scott's playing here, as throughout the night, was fleet fingered and lighthearted.
It was all Rollins on "Tenor Madness," another 20-minute tour de force. Here, Sonny took a marathon solo recalling the great "cutting session" battles of yore and leaving the crowd exhausted. Rollins, however, seemed not only tireless but also ageless. At 71, he still plays with a facility and imaginative spark that few young stars can match. He was very fine on the set's three ballads, where the muscular sound of his horn made a fascinating contrast with the soulful tenderness of his lines. On up-tempo numbers, he was like a freight train, an unstoppable force. And in between, his hip-shaking solos were both bluesy and rousing, with a classic soul-tinged element balanced by forward-looking ideas. A nice example of Rollins' expressiveness came in his playing of "Island Baby," a relaxed tune that sounded like two old friends reminiscing about youthful adventures. Like few other tenor players, Sonny knows how to make someone smile.
At one point during the show, Rollins began trading fours with drummer Tommy Campbell. This somewhat clichéd tradition was turned on its ear as the two men continued their dialogue for five uninterrupted minutes. The give-and-take never seemed forced or gimmicky, and revealed a lot about the group. Unlike a lot of stars, Rollins still has a genuine working band, and this leads to a depth of interplay that makes a show in a huge concert hall feel as friendly and intimate as one in a small nightclub. At the end of a two-hour set that felt like 30 minutes, much of the audience lingered near their seats, unsure if it could really be over so soon.
The next night was every bit as exhilarating. With a full house at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SFJAZZ brought together four more tenor stars for a two-set romp through the Sonny Rollins songbook.
Joe Lovano, David Sanchez, Lew Tabackin, and Robert Stewart made up the front line, with the Benny Green trio comprising a fabulous rhythm section.
Opening, appropriately enough, with "Tenor Madness," the full ensemble took a run together before breaking up into smaller groups for the rest of the evening. The tune was fine, taken at a crisp, high tempo, but it paled in comparison to Rollins' performance and gave little indication of the wonders to come. Only Sanchez stood out with a dense, angular solo near the end that got the crowd involved.
As the band regrouped into a series of quartets and quintets, the musicians' personalities began to mix and mingle in intriguing ways. For "Airegin," Lovano and Tabackin co-led a quintet that recalled the Prestige Records sound of the 1950's. Lovano was his usual complex self, playing a hot, squirrelly solo that integrated a range of classic playing styles. Tabackin, square-jawed and intense, squeezed fire from his horn as he writhed and stomped. Benny Green also made it known that he was a major factor, unleashing a torrential run spiked with huge block chords.
Tabackin and Stewart's take on "Doxy," a cool slide with plenty of bluesy feeling, simply kicked ass. Tabackin found a great blend of modern and soul-jazz here, at one moment sounding complicated, the next lowdown. Bassist Robert Hurst discarded the soul overtones but somehow never lost the vibe in his impressively cerebral turn.
Sanchez replaced Tabackin to close the first set. In "Pent-Up House," Sanchez, who of the tenors seemed to be the popular favorite, started off abstract, then kicked into pure bebop overdrive. Later, he would come across as a kind of musical boxer, bobbing and weaving as he sparred with the drums. But the most interesting solos belonged to Stewart and Benny Green. Stewart, representing the Oakland scene, was outstanding. His gutsy playing updated the honking, bar-walking style of classic r&b sax blowing for a post-Coltrane era. Stewart's wildness dovetailed perfectly with Green, who pulled off a tricky solo played by both hands in unison.
Lovano started off the second set alone, in an honest and heartfelt rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Pannonica." Stewart, Hurst, and drummer Rodney Green joined him for a tight "East Broadway Rundown," which saw the horns weave around each other in a squeaky duet that fell into a clattery rumble. Drummer Rodney Green had a chance to show off with a rhythmic solo that Lovano accented with the disconnected mouthpiece of his tenor.
The night's big showstopper was "The Cutting Edge," which Stewart performed with the trio. This is not one of Rollins' better known compositions—Stewart had to explain the piece to his comrades before starting. But the trio came through with a great rolling post-bop groove. Stewart then put down a raw, almost spiritual lead that invoked Pharoah Sanders and Eddie Harris equally. The trio laid out for a while and let Stewart go to town on his own, digging deep for a stretch that had the audience on the edge of its seats. Benny Green got the next solo, going way down inside the chords then slowly bubbling up like a threatening volcano, finally bursting into a triumphant crescendo.
The schedule made it look unfair; how could anybody possibly follow Rollins in a tribute show and not seem somehow lacking? The answer was on the stage. Rather than being a letdown, these tenor titans were perfect counterparts to the man of honor.
When Forrest Bryant isn't writing about jazz or trying to get Thelonious Monk elevated to sainthood, he can be heard on the Bay Area airwaves as the host of a weekly radio show called "No Cover, No Minimum" (on KZSU, 90.1 FM). He also spends too much of his free time looking for things to write about, so if you're a part of the Bay Area jazz scene, drop Forrest a line and let him know what you're up to.