The Fuse in London: Jazz Festival Diary 6 — Sonny Rollins

Like a guru, Sonny Rollins offered words to live by at the conclusion of the show, words that are his own guidelines as much as they were advice to his fans: “Keep yourself straight and never mind the rest of the world.”

By Steve Elman

Sonny Rollins — He has made a distinctive, personal approach to jazz soloing into an inimitable style. Photo: John Abbott

Imagine a great, blank canvas. Now begin to populate the space. At the top put in a simple, straightforward line or two. At the bottom put some regular forms—a sine wave, a few circles, a couple of asterisks, and question marks. Now fill in the center. Put in three or four jagged, black scrawls of paint. Over there add a splotch of tomato red. A big green square. A blue 7. Then repeat the same forms at strategic places around the canvas; magnify some of them and minimize others. Now stick a few found objects on the field: a little photo of Coleman Hawkins; a note from John Coltrane, with the words “like Sonny” circled; a few bars of “Lady Be Good,” torn from sheet music; a kid’s drawing of other kids playing Ring Around the Rosie. Throw a thimbleful of paint on a bottom corner of the canvas, and let it flow off the frame onto the floor, where gravity takes it. Put shapes that look a little like smiles in a couple of empty spots.

Done. Title: “A Sonny Rollins Solo.”

Rollins, now 80, his once magisterial posture stooped into a slight angle by time, came to Barbican Hall last night and said thanks to London over and over again. He did it with the repertoire, by playing Noel Coward’s “Some Day I’ll Find You.” He did it by playing directly to individual fans in the front row, prompting smiles and, at least from The Independent ’s reviewer Phil Johnson, tears. He did it with sheer stamina, playing tunes for eight minutes or more and stretching his set out to two hours plus without a break. He did it verbally, over the vamp of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” reminiscing about Ronnie Scott and other musicians who had welcomed him so warmly to this, “my favorite city.”

It seemed like he was even willing to play an encore. As the crowd applauded and the band came out for a curtain call, he gestured toward the front of the stage, as if to say, “Why don’t we do one more?” Two of the other players moved quickly off, looking back at him. Another moved alongside. The message was clear: “We’re done, man. Don’t you ever get tired?”

Respect. Rollins has fought for it, earned it, lived to enjoy it. He has made a distinctive, personal approach to jazz soloing into an inimitable style. If the Barbican concert began a bit long-windedly, with an 8-bar vamp tune that offered little harmonic variation, it ended satisfyingly, with a wonderfully crafted version of “Why Was I Born?” that seemed to answer the title question with, “To play, folks, just to play for people like you.”

In my Arts Fuse interview with Bob Blumenthal earlier this year about his book Saxophone Colossus, Bob said that he thought Sonny’s current band is one of the best he’s had in years. As in so many things Rollins, Bob was right.

Sonny Rollins — One of the greatest living artists in any genre. Photo: John Abbott

Kobie Watkins is one great drummer, and this was my first chance to hear him live. Using a simple trap kit that reminded me of Max Roach’s arsenal, he was unfailingly tasteful in his support. When he traded fours with Sonny on “Some Day I’ll Find You,” I heard more and more of Max. When Sonny stepped aside and gave Watkins 10 choruses for a true drum solo, I was floored. I haven’t heard a drummer so close in spirit to Max in decades. Watkins has everything: unobtrusive virtuosity, perfect time, a beautiful balance of sound. But the most important thing, the thing that made Max Roach one of Sonny’s mentors, a thing that Watkins could teach so many other drummers, is the implicit conviction that what he plays is music first and percussion only incidentally. I will be watching Kobie Watkins with great interest from here on in.

Russell Malone has become a warm and welcome voice on guitar, and in this context, where there were no other front-line soloists, he shone. Especially welcome were his frequent half-choruses constructed entirely of chords. The chord solo is one of the great weapons available to the jazz guitarist, and it’s a shame that more players don’t bring it out. They should listen to Russell.

Bob Cranshaw has been Sonny’s rock on bass. In 2012 they will celebrate 50 years of working together. He plays electric exclusively, which obviously is what Sonny wants. This makes me a little sad, since I think Bob had a beautiful and expressive presence on the acoustic instrument, and I think Sonny deprives himself of a wonderful tone color by not encouraging Bob to bring out the bass violin every once in a while. But how could you fault Cranshaw’s lovely, heartfelt solo on “In a Sentimental Mood”?

On congas and bongos, there is the veteran Sammy Figueroa, who integrates his work effectively with Watkins’s, and solos mellifluously when he gets the chance.

Sonny now sports a full beard and a huge crown of gray. He played in a vivid, tomato-red, oversize shirt. He walked the stage with energy, even though his stride is impaired by age. Everyone still uses “colossus” to describe him, and, of course, he remains one of the greatest living artists in any genre.

But when we use that word, we tend to forget that the most famous appearance of “colossus” is in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where Cassius reveals his envy of Caesar and his wish to pull a prideful man down from his place.

Sonny is the opposite of prideful. He knows how good he is, but he could never be a colossus in the sense of that Shakespearean moment. His presence is not even that of an elder statesman but rather that of a guru or a shaman. He has made his own way.

Like a guru, he offered words to live by at the conclusion of the show, words that are his own guidelines as much as they were advice to his fans: “Keep yourself straight, and never mind the rest of the world.”

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