Sonny Brings the Presents to His Own 80th Birthday

Dan Morgenstern By

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Sonny Brings the Presents To His Own 80th Birthday

Sonny Rollins threw himself an 80th birthday party at New York's restored Beacon Theater on September 10 —he was born on the 7th— and it was he who brought the gifts. And what a cornucopia! This was one of those rare times when you know that you're in the best of all possible places in the world. In inspired form, from first note to last, he never left the stage and, as is his wont, took no intermission. The silver- maned and bearded Sonny simply made music of the highest order.

And he carried his companions with him. Music at its best is always a communal art. Sonny's basic band for the night—longtime bassist Bob Cranshaw, guitarist Russell Malone, drummer Kobie Watkins and Latin percussionist Sammy Figueroa—was soon augmented by the first guest. Roy Hargrove doubled on trumpet and flugelhorn. On the latter he rendered an opening statement of "I Can't Get Started," unafraid to state the melody with just the kind of personal phrasing that a Bobby Hackett would lend it. (Ruby Braff, no great friend of contemporary jazz, discovered a ballad album by Roy, via radio, that caused him to rave to me about this still young man, wondering how long he'd been around and why Ruby had not discovered him before.)

Sonny followed with one of those matchless, totally personal improvisations, in the spirit of the song, his sound fuller and warmer than in years, and they went out together, blissfully. At up-tempo, the two also exchanged some blistering fours, going off like fireworks.

Malone had some moments, but the main guitar role was played by the second surprise guest, Jim Hall. Their "In A Sentimental Mood" was a bit unsettled, but then came what I had hoped for when Jim first emerged from the wings: "If Ever I Should Leave You," the peak of their long-ago collaboration, fine on record, but forever in my mind from having caught it live a mere 49 years ago, at the Jazz Gallery. I'm prone to cry at the movies, but music seldom makes me weep. This did, filling me with joy at my fellow octogenarians still doing it—without Viagra.

But there were more surprises to come. The youngest and oldest guests, bassist Christian McBride, all of 38, and ever-youthful Roy Haynes, 85, took the stage together, joined by Sonny on a balladic "Solitude" where, maintaining the tempo, Haynes fashioned one of those startlingly musical solos of his.

Then came, again as I had hoped, "Sonnymoon for Two," that signature blues in the Rollins canon. Early into it, Sonny took to the stage mike (his tenor, as usual, carried one in the bell) and wondered aloud if another special guest would make his appearance.

And who should emerge from the wings but yet another octogenarian icon, Ornette Coleman, shining horn in hand. By then, I should add, Watkins and Figueroa had joined Haynes in a pretty awesome percussion trio. Ornette, in his unique way, soloed on the blues, and then Sonny followed, in the same spirit, in harmolodic terrain. They went out together, united on the theme.

The audience, long in seventh heaven, was jubilant, and in a moving gesture, Ornette kissed Sonny's outstretched hand. (As someone who still vividly recalls the days when many established musicians would not accept Ornette, that moment had special overtones.)

The encore brought all hands but Ornette into action on what else but "St. Thomas." Hargrove shone again, Sonny was magnificent, still brimming with energy, leading a happy climax—the percussive underpinnings for which could have become a jumble but instead were a model of togetherness, the trio conducted, so to speak, by elder Haynes.

For those of you not in the sellout crowd, still floating on a cloud after the event, nobody seemed to want to leave the gathering outside on the sidewalk. A blessing for all that the concert was recorded.

But Not For Me

The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, on East 68th Street, is familiar as the venue for many of the more traditional events at George Wein's New York festivals. Here in the new lair of the Sidney Bechet Society Ltd., on September 12, many voiced their joy at a society reunion of "Hot Jazz, New Orleans and Swing Style" concert showcasing the trumpeter and singer, Byron Stripling. Your reporter, however, soon grew tired of the impossible-to-ignore presence of the star.

A commanding figure, contrary to his surname, I first encountered Mr. Stripling as a youthful protégé of Clark Terry. No one can deny the man's impressive big-band credentials (Terry, Hampton, Herman, Basie, a.o.), but his fate was sealed when he was cast in the lead role of the musical Satchmo: America's Musical Legend, which opened in New Orleans in 1988, made it up to Boston, but never made it to New York.

The Louis repertory has remained Stripling's working menu. And, sure enough, he served up "St. James Infirmary" and "Sunny Side of the Street," both with extended vocals and high note climaxes—he has a way of making those final high ones seem higher than they are by hamming them up. On "Potato Head Blues," with a chart including New Orleans clarinetist Johnny Dodd's classic solo, it was fun to hear Anat Cohen reading it off. On "Struttin' with some Barbecue," Stripling played his best solo, free of histrionics.

The trumpeter had competition in the vocal department from Wycliffe Gordon, featured on "Basin Street Blues." Wycliffe is, of course, a great showman as well as a superb trombonist, and it was brave of Byron to engage him in a scat duet, which was a lesson in strain versus ease. As it turned out, the evening's musical climax was a lovely rendition of "Nuages" by the duo of Anat and guitarist Howard Alden, by now a seasoned team, and a blessed relief from noisy antics. Anat also played some of that fine soprano sax.

The excellent young drummer Marion Felder and the not-that-much older bassist Dwayne Burno did well; the bassist got a lot of solo space, though Stripling apparently is unfamiliar with the adage, "Give the drummer some," and confined Felder to a few exchanges—not a single solo outing. It seemed to me that midway through the second half (the first was very long), the audience had lost much of its early enthusiasm for the leader's antics. But I may be wrong—let's see if there is some angry mail!

Short Takes

The Kitano New York, at 66 Park Ave., one of the pleasanter places to enjoy jazz (and sushi), played host in September to a quartet headed up by the happily more and more visible young piano wiz, Ehud Asherie. Ehud can be seen but mostly heard on the tube, in that new HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, a Prohibition epic also featuring Vince Giordano's superb Nighthawks. Here, he had Harry Allen's tenor, new to me, and good Clovis Nicholas on bass, and longtime favorite Chuck Riggs on drums.

They made great swinging sounds, pushing the good old "Trolley Song" into warp speed. Harry has become a true master of his instrument; to make real music at this tempo is the domain of a bare handful. Ehud excelled throughout the set, but it was his solo feature, a veritable rhapsody on Eubie Blake's "Love Will Find a Way," that stays in mind. Ehud's solo CD on Arbors Jazz is highly recommended.

That jazz is a natural for musical therapy should go without saying, but there is a special relationship between Beth Israel Medical Center and the legacy of Louis Armstrong. The fifth annual What A Wonderful World Awards ceremony at The Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at BIMC, on September 20, was my first experience with this most worthy enterprise. I was honored to have been chosen as presenter to one of the awardees, none other than Dave Brubeck. Unfortunately, Dave was not feeling well. Fortunately, his eldest son, pianist- composer-educator Darius Brubeck, was visiting his parents and stepped into the breach.

I hadn't seen Darius for a very long time; he's getting to look more and more like his father. Among other accomplishments, he brought jazz instruction to South Africa, where he was a professor and founder-head of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music at the University of Natal, in Durban. The ties between Dave and Louis are strong ones, Dave and his wife lola having created that memorable musical vehicle for Armstrong called "The Real Ambassadors."

There were other honorees, among them Greg Thomas, the V.P. of CareFusion, sponsor of George Wein's most recent New York festival. His presenter was Phoebe Jacobs. A remarkable teenage honoree, Kimberly Sue, though deaf, performed a song.

While the acoustics in the BIMC atrium leave much to be desired, the musical interludes by Lew Soloff and Mulgrew Miller were splendid. Lew's "West End Blues" cadenza was, truthfully, the best rendition of that treacherously difficult trumpet trap I've ever heard. (I made a mini-study of such attempts, dating back to Louis Metcalfe's disastrous one in 1929.)

The duo also scored with "I Cover the Waterfront" and managed to make a musically enjoyable statement on the event's unavoidable theme song, which really should only be done by Louis himself. The evening's charming hostess was Mercedes Ellington.

Finally, at the Shanghai in Madison, NJ, Daryl Sherman and her regulars, guitarist James Chirillo and bassist Boots Maleson, who are so delightfully attuned to each other, strutted their effervescent stuff on Sunday, September 18. A highlight was Daryl's unveiling of a Sidney Bechet original, "Who'll Chop Your Suey (When I'm Gone)," tailormade for a Chinese restaurant, though the dish is long gone from most menus.

As another treat, James' violist wife, Valerie Levy, sat in for a couple of numbers—not a jazzer, but a fine melodist making a beautiful sound. James, by the way, enjoyed a longish Broadway run in the Sinatra tribute show, Come Fly With Me, visible on his big-band perch, and audible on a nice intro to "Wave."

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