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Sonny Rollins, Live at NJPAC

Joel Roberts By

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Sonny Rollins
New Jersey Performing Arts Center
Newark, NJ
May 13, 2011

The expectations for a Sonny Rollins concert have always been extraordinarily high. One anticipates waves of awe-inspiring solos and jaw-dropping feats of musical dexterity from the saxophone colossus, and more often than not, he delivers. But in recent years, something else has begun to happen when Rollins performs.

As he ambled onto the stage at NJPAC in Newark, a stooped 80-year-old man with a wild mane of white hair, wearing dark sunglasses and an un-tucked white shirt, Rollins instantly transformed into a heroic figure. It may be the sheer amazement that overtakes the crowd on watching a man in his ninth decade on the planet—and seventh as a major figure in the jazz world—expend a whirlwind of energy that would leave men a quarter his age panting, but seeing Rollins at 80 has an air of poignancy and emotion that his performances as a younger man, for all their brilliance, never approached.

Rollins seems to be relishing it—as is his fine new quintet (Peter Bernstein on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Jerome Jennings on drums, and Sammy Figueroa on percussion), who grinned in delight at their boss throughout the night. Rollins is more animated and interactive with the audience than ever in his career. As he pushed on through chorus after magnificent chorus of the calypso tune "Nice Lady," he danced a few steps and pumped his fist in the air, a triumphant gesture signaling that the old man was still a force to be reckoned with. When the song finally ended, after ten, maybe twenty minutes, Rollins didn't take a break to catch his breath or reach for a drink of water. He waited for the crowd's roar to die down then quickly launched into his next tune—and not a ballad either, but an up-tempo version of "Falling in Love is Wonderful."

At the end of the 90-minute concert , performed without an intermission, Rollins offered the crowd a benediction, saying, "There's nothing to worry about. You have nothing to fear. If you can look the man in the mirror in the face, then everything's going to be OK. I'm not afraid of anything." Then he launched into a deliriously honking, squawking reprise of "Nice Lady," and exited the stage. A courageous man at peace with the universe.

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