Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall
December 1, 2006
Greatness in music is difficult to define, but one of its characteristics is the sustained development of a unique potential without sacrificing the essence of a specific musical syntax. If this be the case, then Sonny Rollins is more than a saxophone "colossus, as he has aptly been called. He belongs in the pantheon of greats with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and a few others who have shaped the profile of jazz over the decades. And if this concert, Rollins second appearance at the Kimmel Center, was any indicator, he continues to move forward, unruffled and untarnished, well into his seventies and, we can only hope, beyond. Rollins and his outstanding group rendered one of the most powerful, smoking, and swinging performances that I have ever heard. The music glowed with the kind of brilliance, beauty, and power that sets a standard for excellence in small ensemble jazz.
I have listened extensively to Rollins recordings, both early and recent, and marveled at the way they push the envelope of improvisation. But it is something else to hear him in person. There's a liveliness and intensity to his playing which simply cannot be captured on a recording. From the moment he stepped out on stage on this December 1 date, to the last note of the evening, Rollins' powerful sound and capacity to develop musical ideas never wavered. The same may be said for every member of his group, who backed the leader with drive and precision while emulating his example on every solo. The music was magical from start to finish, without an intermission, the feeling of intimacy and spontaneity reminiscent of those heady times in the '50s and '60s when Rollins was a dominant force on the scene and jazz was rolling forward at a breakneck pace.
A descriptive review by Andi Berlin of Rollins' November 22nd concert at the University of Arizona echoes my own observations of his stage presence and musical assertiveness: "Rollins grasped his saxophone nonchalantly, swaying back and forth like a possessed holy-man, improvising multi-octave scales and riffs. Every note was on-point, usually in tune and concise." Berlin observes, in her remarks on the University's website, a democracy in Rollins' allocation of solos and an allusiveness in his own constructions, both characteristics in evidence on this December night in Philadelphia as well. The leader distributed solo honors among his musicians, then delivered powerful melodies from his repertoire past and present, developing them into compelling narratives before bringing the listener back to the original seminal idea.
The selection of tunes included a number of Rollins originals, like "Sonny, Please (the title tune from his new CD), "Nice Lady (a melodic calypso song), "JJ (a warm tribute to Rollins' mentor, the late great trombonist, J.J. Johnson, a song that is likely to take its place as a standard alongside Benny Golson's classic "I Remember Clifford ), and "Nishi, as well as standards such as "Someday I'll Find You," "They Say That Falling in Love is Wonderful, and "Don't Stop the Carnival. Rollins' reputation as a dynamic, driving saxophonist sometimes obscures his abilities let alone track record as a composer as well as his rich, soulful interpretation of ballads. In this concert, he proved his mettle in all three areas while asserting his command as a group leader.
Everyone in the group was at his best, each shining on his own. Clifton Anderson proved himself an outstanding trombonist with resonances of J.J. himself. Bobby Broom's resemblance to Wes Montgomery, both in appearance and musicality, was striking. Bob Cranshaw performed with laid-back timing and rich, precise tonality on electric bass. The respected drummer Victor Lewis, subbing for regular Steve Jordan, played with unremitting energy, each of his solos a definitive display of modern drum techniques. Kimati Dinizulu's percussion brought out the African and Carribean elements so important to jazz. Dinizulu flawlessly combined traditional bongo playing with instruments that included triangles and two unique devices with small cymbals on top affixed to metallic helixes that dropped down below. The group as a whole provided a rich fabric of improvisation and interpretation, showing extreme sensitivity and telepathic responsiveness to Rollins' unique style and approach.