Sonny Rollins Returns to the Kimmel Center

Victor L. Schermer By

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Sonny Rollins
Verizon Hall
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

September 25, 2009

Sonny Rollins has a large and enthusiastic fan base in Philadelphia so that, even in a time of economic recession, a packed house cheered on Rollins and his group as they provided a solid evening of straight ahead jazz with no intermission, and with a bebop and post-bop flavor that represented a shift from Rollins' previous engagement at the Kimmel Center in 2006, when his musical approach covered a wider swath as he at times went into the outer stratosphere with his interpretations. In this return visit, the feeling was more unified and consistent, with an emphasis on rhythm and melodic development. The overall effect was reminiscent of the groups he performed with in the salad days of the 1950s and 60s.

Rollins has assembled a group of outstanding musicians. Trombonist Clifton Anderson, guitarist Bobby Broom, and bassist Bob Cranshaw have long been Rollins regulars. Drummer Kobie Watkins, and percussionist Sammy Figueroa were not in the 2006 ensemble, but they provided ample rhythmic heat which, in its own way, was a highlight of the performance. They coordinated their playing superbly—surpassing many of their peers, where the percussionist often lags behind the drums. By contrast, Figueroa, one of the most heralded musicians in the business, was the centerpiece of the sidemen, both by his placement on the stage, congas in front of him like a keyboard, and musically as well, while Watkins' smackingly hard-drive playing complemented Figueroa perfectly. The consistency and precision of their attack lent an highly appealing unity to the concert. Broom and Cranshaw (the latter on bass guitar), positioned at either end of the ensemble, were more reserved in approach, but provided fine accompaniment and solo work. Rollins himself, with the almost mythological persona of an ancient medicine man that is a function of his bright red shirt, his large, tall physique, his maturity, and his deliberate moving about the stage and rocking his sax as if in a tribal dance, performed with his usual energy, powerful sound, and intense concentration.

Trombonist Anderson served as a perfect foil for Rollins, with a laid back style that contrasted strikingly with Rollins' intensity. His solos on Berlin's "Change Partners" and on "Global Warming" showed that, though a young lion just a few years ago, he has evolved into a mature instrumentalist in the class of Steve Turre and Robin Eubanks. Broom, more reserved than usual, did some of his best soloing on "Someday I'll Find You." The only disappointment among the seven or eight tunes on the menu was a somewhat lackluster version of Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood." The group had trouble "getting into" Duke's idiom, but Rollins came to the rescue at the end with a show-stopping cadenza. The concert concluded with a celebratory calypso harking back to an early phase of Rollins' remarkable career. Rollins is one of the last surviving giants from the incredible generation of bebop and hard bop musicians who changed the face of jazz in the '50s and '60s. The fact that in his eighties, Rollins' trademark sound is as strong as ever and that he still pushes the envelope, does justice to them all.

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