Monday, May 4, 2009
Witnessing a living legend can be a dicey proposition. Chuck Berry at 70 was an abomination, one of those Wish I Hadn't moments that destroyed whatever respect I once had for the cat. James Brown in his 60s made me wince and wonder about his knee pads.
So Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophonist whom I'd never seen, was a calculated risk. At 79, I should just be thankful to have witnessed him in the flesh. As he walked on the stage of the Bass Concert Hall on Sunday night with an uneasy, limping gait, the impression was underscore: after more than fifty years of jazz innovation, I was fortunate to experience a live Rollins performance before he exits Stage Left from this good earth.
But once his microphone was fixed five minutes into the first tune, age and time vanished, and performance he led his five piece group was just that: a performance of a great player essaying lush ballads, familiar ballads and even flashes of hard bop, no perspective required. His tone, his command, his presence, the players around him - everything was what great music should be. His brass counterpoint, trombonist Clifton Anderson (his nephew) provided the perfect counterpoint to Sonny and riffed improvisations as satisfying as the front man's. Guitarist Bobby Broom, who played his first gig with Sonny when he was just sixteen – at Town Hall, no less and also served briefly as Miles Davis’s guitarist, as the only guitarist to work in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and had a long stint with Dr. John (a tip of the Hatlo Hat to Matt Farmer), took his improvised leads on his Gibson to places where the bus doesn't run before bringing it all back to the basic groove. Rollins' showed his obvious delight, pushing him and urging him on, mouthing his approval whenever Brown's breaks moved him. The rhythm section of Bob Cranshaw's cool and understated bass, drummer Kobie Watson's expressive fills, and Victor See Yuan's smooth conga and percussive fills provided a solid foundation for all the riffs that flew from the players.
Rollins' improvisation was a joy to hear and see, working his tenor hard, extending a note while letting his right hand drop to his side, walking out to the plank where only Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders went with confidence, then downshifting to full and mellow clusters of notes that shimmered in their luxuriance on "They Say It's Wonderful" back to back with "My One and Only Love," both from the Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane studio collaborations in 1962-3.
Over the course of an hour and a half, the ensemble grooved and wailed steadily on a handful of tunes, earning a string of standing ovations at the completion of each. The only pause in the articulated groove was towards the end when Sonny limped to the microphone to growl out "AWWWW-STIN" in appreciation of the crowd, noting twice that the last time he'd passed through town was playing the Armadillo, which he pronounced with the kind of conviction you could tell he had a soft spot in his heart for place. The band closed with "Don't Stop The Carnival" a Rollins standard with it signature Second Line backbeat. While it was clear Rollins don't do no encores (at this stage of his career, encores are redundant and standing up for close to two hours on those old legs of his is no cakewalk), the audience was not going to let him go, so he gathered the group to walk out on stage one more time and wave, then walk off. The cheering didn't stop, so the group reluctantly came out for one more, with Sonny playing AND singing lead on a blues shuffle "It's a Lowdown Dirty Shame." The band played, departed, came out for one more wave at the crowd, and everybody went home tired and happy, the cats who made it all happen included.
The acoustics at the redone Bass were pretty sweet once the sax mic glitch was resolved.
And Hank Alrich of the Armadillo World Headquarters recalled the last time Sonny played Austin for me today, via email:
"The airplane had hit a huge air bump and he'd smacked his upper lip against solid structure and split it open. He played a long and amazing set with blood running down his sax, took a break and did another one. What a fucking hero.
"How the hell can Austin not bring back Sonny for all those goddamn years? That is beyond pathetic. Live music capitol, my ass."