If you were silly enough to compile a list of candidates for the mythical title of Greatest Living American Musician, along with Bob Dylan and Neil Young, BB King and Smokey Robinson and Doc Watson and Steve Reich and all the rest, you'd have to give strong consideration to the snowy- haired and bearded 77-year-old tenor sax player who limped up on stage at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall Friday night. Even though more listeners have heard his coda to the Stones's “Waiting on a Friend” than “Saxophone Colossus,” Sonny Rollins has drawn oohs and awe from critics and listeners for half a century. But the death of his beloved wife and business manager, a recent slowing of his recording and touring, and his advancing years occasioned had to inspire some doubts about Rollins's continued relevance. It wouldn't have been surprising if this show, coming between high-profile 50th anniversary gigs at Carnegie Hall land the Monterey Jazz Festival, dipped in intensity. An improviser as intrepid as Rollins is always going to have merely good nights to go with the transcendent shows—it's the inherent riskiness of his on-the-edge ethic.
But soon as he started blowing on the opening “Change Partners,” Rollins' firm tone and commanding musical presence blew away any worries that this might be one of those polite late-career tributes to yesteryear. He may not pack quite the punch of his peak period, but Sonny Rollins is still a real and active force in contemporary jazz. Though most of the material—standards such as “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Falling in Love is Wonderful”; a couple of his beloved calypsos that nodded to Rollins' Caribbean heritage—was familiar from Rollins performances from four or five decades ago, his solos felt fresh. Tempos were sprightly, even in the mid-tempo ballads, and Rollins's sly, offbeat placement of phrases at unexpected moments can still surprise after half a century. Now working in a sextet, Rollins doesn't have to carry the full weight of solo responsibility, and his bandmates (especially trombonist Clifton Anderson and drummer Willie Jones, whose extended solo drew the evening's biggest cheers) held the worshipful audience's attention. Though Kimati Dinizulu's congas didn't add as much as I'd hoped, Bobby Broom's guitar and the great Bob Cranshaw provided steady if unspectacular support.
The fans also cheered the night's other good news: the announcement of Portland Jazz Festival's new pdxjazz operation, which aims to provide year-round jazzy goodness to the city's still-strong jazz fandom. This well-attended concert was a strong start. Despite all the decades and veneration, Sonny Rollins is still striving to push the art form forward, and he delivered a solid set that would have garnered deserved plaudits at any time over the past thirty years or so. So: a typical Sonny Rollins performance—how can anyone complain about that?
Sonny Rollins' website
Photo: courtesy of a Google image search.