Sonny Rollins: Tanglewood 2005

Scott H. Thompson By

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Rollins' songs are long, strong-building, powerful performances that gives the music time to breath. Breath fire.
It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning in New England, while down South, New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, lay in ruin. Devastated by Hurricane Katrina. I made my way to a 9:15am church service, and then headed out onto the highway for another church service. The church of Sonny Rollins.

Driving straight north through the center of Connecticut, take a left at the Massachusetts Turnpike, then a scenic drive west to the Berkshires and the Tanglewood Jazz Festival. My thoughts for the entire drive where on the plight of the poor in the coastal Gulf states. I felt guilty being able to enjoy the luxury of even sipping on bottled water.

But as I pulled into the beautiful Tanglewood grounds, I felt a sense of purpose. I was here to see the most powerful, incredible, driving force of the Royal Guard of Jazz. I was here to see Sonny Rollins at Ozawa Hall.

Friday featured Diane Schuur with the Caribbean Jazz Project. Saturday offered Skitch Henderson, Bucky Pizzarelli and Jay Leonhart. Saturday night, it was Tony Bennett and the Count Basie Orchestra (how cool is that!?) Then, Sonny Rollins during the day Sunday and the Yellowjackets and Chris Botti in the evening.

Backstage with Tanglewood publicity person Dawn Singh and WGBH jazz Master of Ceremony Eric Jackson, the talk turned to New Orleans. Everybody in the hall nearby joined in. The questions. The compassion.

I was offered the best seat in the house...a box seat directly beside the performers...practically onstage with them. I felt I should've picked up a percussion instrument or something, to earn my keep so close to the guys. The guys being: Clifton Anderson (trombone), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Steve Jordan (drums), Bobby Broom (guitar), Kimati Dinizulu (percussion), and of course, Sonny Rollins (tenor saxophone).

Sonny was dressed as his usual hip self-clean, new white sneakers, bright red pants, black longsleeve pressed shirt, tail-out. White beard, black shades.

Rollins in no-nonsense. He strolled out. Humbly acknowledged the appreciative packed crowd and leapt into his first song. The band was incredibly tight. Smilin' and swingin.' Right from the get-go. Rollins' songs are long, strong-building, powerful performances that gives the music time to breath. Breath fire. Its like a mantra -he hypnotizes you with his searing solos. Twenty minutes at a clip -he'll just let the music flow out of his horn. Its just incredible and you owe it to yourself to go see him, if you haven't already.

Pianist Donal Fox was sitting near me in our box seat. (Donal Fox will be appearing at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola December 6-11, 2005 with George Mraz on bass and Lewis Nash on drums.) Fox leaned over between songs and smiled, "Man, he gets in that stream..." So true. When Sonny Rollins gets into his stream of consciousness, the genius just flows out effortlessly, with spectacular genius.

Rollins explains, "Sometimes when I'm soloing, what I'm trying to do is to establish something to go on from there. You see, this is my dilemma. I'm a guy who makes things up as I go along so nothing is ever going to be finished...there are so many layers. It's just like the musical overtone series; you play one note, but there's another note there at the same time. You can hear the next level. And that's how I feel about improvising... there's always another level to get to.

Three intense songs and then a break. Rollins' smiles as he walks off, he's just getting warmed up. I recall having him at the 1999 New Haven Jazz Festival when I was helping produce that event. He was supposed to take a break about 45-minutes into the set. As we passed the expected break time, I leaned over to the pianist and asked if they were going to break. He leaned over to Sonny, and yelled something, as Sonny was in mid-solo. I'll never forget the look. Sonny just looked back, blowin' hard, snearing, harder and harder...as if to say "Just try to get me off this stage right now!!!" Like Donal said...once he gets in that stream... stand back!

Rollins played songs from his just-released Without A Song (The 9/11 Concert), which was recorded live at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston just four days after September 11, 2001. He also played, "Global Warming, to which he said, "Think about it." (A reference perhaps to the changing weather conditions on Earth.)

Rollins playing just days after 9/11... and here it is just days after Hurricane Katrina and Rollins is playing. His vibe is sent out into the universe to help get the Earth back on its correct rotation. His notes are healing.

Every band member got to showcase their talent. Each rising to the occasion with professional precision. Smiling and having a great time, it was a wonderfully refreshing experience. Now I know why I made the trek. I needed this spiritual rejuvenation.

Backstage, as the crowd kept stomping and screaming for an encore, Sonny looked at Scullers jazz club impresario Fred Taylor, who was the previous owner of Paul's Mall and said, "This one's for Paul's Mall," as he strolled out onstage, driving his fist into the air, power! This cat is in his mid-70s and he's giving the power fist! Which translated to me saying, Never Give Up! Ever!

Pray for our brothers and sisters in the South. Contribute.

Photo credit: Andrew James
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