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Sonny Rollins: San Francisco, CA, September 30, 2012

Harry S. Pariser By

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Sonny Rollins
Symphony Hall
San Francisco, CA
September 30, 2012
Excitement was palpable among people milling around the entrance of Symphony Hall in downtown San Francisco during the evening of September 30, 2012, where legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins was to appear.

Just past 8:00pm, he was introduced by Randall Kline of SFJAZZ, the sponsor of the city's jazz festival. A New York City, native, Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins has long been a fixture on the jazz scene. At 82, he's still trying new things—recently starting his own Doxy record label (with two releases so far)—and was named a Fellow at the Kennedy Center last year.

Rollins sports a flowing mane of white hair and a white beard; he was wearing a long white shirt on this evening. As took the stage, he was greeted with a heartfelt standing ovation. Unlike many jazz legends, Rollins is quite loquacious, and has a series of compositions named after his mentors and friends in the jazz universe.

Rollins opened with the first of these, "D Cherry," a lovely tribute dedicated to the "free spirit" of pocket trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry, best-known for his work with alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and also-departed tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman. Next up was "Patanjali," which featured an extended solo by purple-clad trombonist Clifton Anderson, Rollins' nephew. Anderson received his first trombone from his uncle and has been playing with Rollins' group for more than two decades. The tune ended on a crescendo, with the saxophonist bent over.

But not for long. Rollins swiftly launched into legendary pianist Randy Weston's "Carnival," a tune that really and truly embodies the West Indies' "jump up" tradition, as the saxophonist played with his back to the audience. Guitarist Saul Rubin also soloed magnificently. Afterwards, Rollins commented that "I usually don't play that song, but somebody asked me to. So I played it because I am a nice guy."

Next, Rollins pulled up a chestnut from The Great American Songbook, "Once in A While." As he soloed, his great white mane of hair appeared ethereal in the stage lights.

"Serenade," which "evoked an Elvin Jones feeling" (referencing the late drum legend), reminded Rollins that "there's another guy that I need to write a song about." Anderson's solo interpolated gently with Rollins' tenor, evidence of their longstanding collaboration. Afro-haired and glasses-wearing drummer Kobie Watkins soloed as Rollins exited and then reentered, wearing sunglasses, to bring the composition to an end with a flourish.

Next up was "J.J.," a melodic, haunting ballad dedicated to the late trombonist J.J. Johnson who, according to Rollins, "was sort of my mentor. Everybody loved him. J.J.: are you listening? This is for J.J." Watkins played wire brushes for this one, and Anderson soloed again.

Following a short burst of sound, marking the beginning of "Don't Stop the Carnival," Rollins announced "That's our show for tonight," before playing through the tune, clenching his fist in the air and leaving the stage to the accompaniment of a triumphant standing ovation.

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