I'm willing to grant, in accordance with Darcy James Argue's recent list of the "Top Four Tolerable Rock Sax Solos of All Time," that Sonny Rollins's contribution to the Rolling Stones song "Waiting on a Friend" might not make the grade. (I'm on the fence about it personally, but I see Darcy's point in the comments following the post.) Still, I can't think of any other sense in which this great American artist has ever really fallen short. Tonight, under overcast skies and occasional drizzle, Rollins held forth for a solid two hours of music making in Lincoln Center's Damrosch Bandshell that was not merely exceptional for a 75-year-old, but exceptional, period.
The passage of time is apparent when you see Rollins these days; hunched over slightly, he's not the imposing colossus he once was, and his walk could be described as a determined wobble. Once he got to the front of the stage and planted himself, however, he might have been 20 years younger.
I've never had a knack for distinguishing Rollins's various calypso tunes, I sadly confess, but one of them got tonight's show off to a lively start. Clifton Anderson, the saxophonist's nephew and longtime trombonist, sounded slightly tentative at first, but settled in quickly. The rhythm section of guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Victor Lewis and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu provided a firm springboard from which Rollins could launch in any direction he could imagine. In his first solo of the evening, Rollins atomized the melody, chasing fragments into oblique keys, then calling them home with a nasal, snake-charming sequence.
A ballad followed: "Someday I'll Find You," the Noël Coward tune covered on Rollins's new CD, Sonny, Please, on his own Doxy Records label. (You'll find more information about that CD, as well as a really nice 10-minute documentary video in which Rollins talks about the band and the tunes, right here.) As raindrops spattered down, a few umbrellas went up, followed by cries of protest that saw them lowered again. Broom's solo was a long, lanky tumble of notes; Cranshaw followed with rolling lines and sliding tones. Anderson's muted solo was a marvel of subtlety, like a whispered aside at a crowded party. Instead of stretching alone, Rollins engaged Dinizulu in the first of several witty dialogues that punctuated the evening. If this was his way of compensating for lacking the stamina of 20 years ago, it was an agreeable one.
Rollins soloed at length on "Nishi," a boisterous blues from the new album, blowing knotty whorls of notes paced ever so slightly behind Lewis's propulsive beat. He wandered into minimalist snake-charming mode once again, worrying a melodic cell over and over again, then suddenly pulling the head from out of nowhere. In another tune from the new disc, "Serenade" (from a ballet score by Riccardo Drigo, an Italian composer active in St. Petersburg, Russia at the beginning of the 20th century), Anderson soloed with a rich, burnished tone over the steely twang of Cranshaw's electric bass strings; Rollins once again engaged with Dinizulu in lieu of an outright solo.
Mortality is presumably on Rollins's mind lately; his beloved wife and manager, Lucille, passed away in 2004, and one of the original tunes on the new album, "Remembering Tommy," salutes another recently deceased friend and colleague, Tommy Flanagan (although the tune was actually written as an intended collaboration with the pianist). Tonight, Rollins unveiled another tribute, a brief ballad dedicated to trombonist J.J. Johnson. An opening reminscent of a Monk ballad unfurled into a generous melody, the saxophonist filling the gaps between phrases with wisps of smoky elaboration.
Approaching the 90-minute mark, Rollins approached the microphone for his closing remarks. "Don't forget...," he trailed off, then brightly offered, "Don't forget to don't forget!" The band launched into another happy calypso, probably an obvious one I should be embarassed not to have recognized. The song segued into another rich ballad, during which Rollins reintroduced his band. Having dismissed his listeners, he accompanied them down the aisle with a generosity of spirit and fecundity of imagination that seemed utterly unquenchable.
Cutting short his own attempt to leave the stage at ten minutes to 10pm, Rollins launched an unaccompanied solo bulging with new concepts. Like James Brown's handler approaching with the cape to signal the night's end, Rollins's band crept in behind him; like that other soulful Godfather, Rollins shugged them off, uncorking another unaccompanied stream that included references to every song you've ever heard and twice as many you haven't. It was almost as if he was shuffling through an endless iPod playlist, looking for just the right song to close the night. Finally, he chose. The band joined him in "They Say It's Wonderful." And it was.
Walking down Central Park West on my way to the subway stop at 57th and Seventh, I had Sonny, Please on the discman. The streets were as clear and quite as ever I've seen them before 4am, and the thick air and rain-slickened streets refracted the lights from the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle into a hazy shimmer of impressionistic color. It was one of those mysterious, magical moments that occasionally catch you by surprise in this city, and Rollins was the perfect companion.
Christina Aguilera - Back to Basics (RCA)
Cee-Lo - Cee-Lo Green and His Perfect Imperfections (Arista)
Sonny Rollins - Sonny, Please (Doxy) and The Bridge (RCA Bluebird)