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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.


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