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Sonny Rollins: Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4

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Sonny Rollins’ most celebrated album of the 21st century is, and may very well always be, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. In part that’s because of the dramatic circumstances behind its genesis. Four days after the 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center, which had left him stranded in Downtown Manhattan without electricity, Rollins made a difficult trip to Boston to keep a previously booked date at the Berklee Performance Center. The circumstances triggered something deep in Rollins’ playing that September night, and the concert was at once an outpouring of emotion, a celebration of the creative impulse and an inspiring show of indomitability in the face of terror.

The biggest news about Holding the Stage, the latest installment in Rollins’ continuing live compilation series Road Shows, is that it presents the final half-hour of that Boston concert for the first time on disc. Why weren’t these four tracks included on Without a Song? One presumes that running time and program flow were factors, but the biggest issues appear to have been technical. A few stray pops, clicks and distortion bursts detract from the music here and there, and Rollins’ saxophone is distant at times, either because his mic was malfunctioning, he was playing way off it, or both. At one point the whole band seems to get farther away, suggesting that we’ve switched to a more remote recording source. (Maybe the soundboard tape ran out?)

Any audio-related complaints are minor, however, compared to the thrill of having this material in general circulation at last. “You’re Mine You” is up first, essentially a variation on “Body and Soul” that’s a perfect vehicle for Rollins’ bobbing, weaving and teasing the same note from multiple directions. Next comes “Sweet Leilani,” a winsome tune that Rollins sets about deconstructing with the greatest good humor. Seven minutes in, the band stops and the saxophonist launches into a long, masterful improvisation on his own, which runs straight into the traditional set-closer “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” stretched out to nearly 10 jubilant minutes. “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” Rollins tells the crowd, “we’ll see you next time around … hopefully.” Then he thinks better of that last equivocal statement, and adds with gusto, “We’ll be back. You’ll be back too. We’ll all come back!” Knowing what had just happened four days earlier, it’s a heart-in-throat moment.

The remainder of the album travels through three decades, from an energetic 1979 take on the period curiosity “Disco Monk” to a short, stirring 2012 version of “Mixed Emotions,” recorded in Prague just a few months before Rollins’ possible retirement from live performance. On the opening “In a Sentimental Mood,” cut at London’s Barbican Centre in 2007, Rollins unravels Ellington’s melody like a ball of yarn, then sends it skyward on an accompaniment-free joyride. During a mesmerizing 2006 rendition of “H.S.” in Toulouse, he repeatedly transforms his tone from its usual burly roar to a nasal screech that might have you thinking of snake charmers. And on the hard-swinging “Keep Hold of Yourself,” captured at a 1996 Paris gig, pianist Stephen Scott’s rambunctious playing spurs Rollins on to a whirlwind-force solo. There’s plenty of gold to be found here, but the Boston tracks take prime position, and rightly so.

Originally Published