Always Sonny

Some years ago, I took a friend to see a Sonny Rollins performance that proved every bit as thrilling as we anticipated, if not more so. High on Sonny, we floated to the exit, squeezed between many exultant-looking people and bumped into a colleague, who asked, "What did you think?" When I told him, he said, "Really? I thought he was a bit off," at which point my friend hustled me to the door. Outside, she said, "I could not bear that guy trying to bring me down."

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John Abbott

Sonny Rollins

Welcome to Rollinsiana, a peculiar land where the population is divided in two: those who sing hosannas of gratitude and amazement and those who feed on a relentless diet of disappointments, and probably enjoy themselves every bit as much--Scroogery, after all, has its compensations, not least the certainty of superior discrimination. I don't mean to impugn their motives: "You got to be in the sun to feel the sun," Sidney Bechet observed, and some who came of age with the Sonny of the 1950s (the confident swing, smooth timbre, punctilious design) are easily bruised, burned and bored by the multiple Sonnys that followed (the ecstatic swing, rainbow timbre, spontaneous inspiration).

Of course, there are also two Rollinses--live and studio--and as much of his best work belongs to the former, those without access to his concerts are at an understandable disadvantage. The press, however, in, say, New York City has no such excuses; yet several of his most exhilarating achievements have been ignored or dismissed with a kind of impatient "I don't get it" sneer.

I think the problem is one of generosity, not that of the critics, but of Rollins himself. He gives everything--and the 80 to 90 minute sets are the least of it. He unearths so much naked emotion, disclosing epiphanies, shoring up rhythmic ecstasies, cutting veins of tenderness and shared recollection, pressing himself to a point where the obvious factors of his playing (the lyricism, energy, humor, endurance) disappear into a profuse benevolence. You can either surrender or stand back, in the shade. But I don't see how you can deny the achievement, especially now that documentation of the live Rollins seems to be on the rise.

Not that a Rollins performance fails to make demands on us all. Concert time, especially when buoyed by a rigorous rhythm section, flows at a different pace than record time. His very presence onstage helps to expedite patches of dullness, particularly those long solos by his associates, which at least provide breathing spaces for Rollins to recoup and further regale. Concert time engenders empathy for a musician who, more than most, honors the eccentricities of his muse, to the edge of coherence and beyond. A few years ago, while nearing the climax of a set in Central Park, Rollins got caught in a punishing, repetitive outpouring that, for several minutes, seemed to be going nowhere, boxed in by riffs and furious asides. Rather than cut to the head, he kept fighting through the demonic thicket--and eventually broke through for a spectacular detonation of fireworks.

The long and frustrating build-up was instantly exonerated or absorbed in the satisfaction of release. You can't get away with that sort of thing on records; records are a different medium, a different art.

As a test case consider "Global Warming" on last year's Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone)--a perfect example of everything that causes Rollinsianans to either swoon or roll their eyes. The 15-minute selection begins with a short tenor saxophone cadenza, bringing in the rhythm men for a vamp that ignites the marchlike theme. Trombonist Clifton Anderson plays the first solo, and eventually uncovers a handsome set of modulations that would have brought his solo to a gratifying finish; unfortunately, he heads into another chorus, so it is a relief when Rollins signals a changeover. Yet it's a false alarm; he passes the baton to the percussion section for a time-marking interlude.

Finally the big guy enters, and he plays one of the most bracing recorded solos in years, a solo that produces as much pleasure with its sensationally varied timbre as with the munificence of its ideas. He spins a burr around some notes and barks others, unravels short punching phrases and long bagpipe elaborations (suggesting the place east and west meet after all). Despite the heady rhythm, he is balanced and relaxed, parsing measures with deliberation, then stretching the boundaries of bar lines and legitimate tone. He uses riffs sparingly until the last minute, when he hops on the one of choice and drives it through the rhythm like a Bentley, pulling into the stop with a brisk, assertive finality.

The solo is a savory moment--actually, a six-minute moment. So is this glass of "Global Warming" half empty or brimming over? For me, the question is entirely rhetorical, especially with my remote control in hand. Who else plays like this? Good as it is, I am not certain that it's the peak moment on the album either, because there is an incredible cadenza on "Why Was I Born?" (which has pianist Stephen Scott's best shot, buoyed by the enthusiastic rhythm section), a cunning paraphrase of "Without a Song" (with the first of two "Oh! Susanna" citations), and the fearless candor of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square."

As ever, Sonny Rollins is good for what ails you.

Originally published in January/February 2006

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