Sonny Rollins in London

Sonny Rollins Quintet
Barbican, London
20th November 2010

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Russell Malone, guitar; Sammy Figueroa, percussion

Age has not wearied Sonny Rollins, but it has reduced his gait to a slow, cautious waddle. Draped in a generous red silk shirt, crowned with a halo of grey frizz that recalled Arthur Rubenstein, Sonny Rollins emerged from behind a black curtain and swayed his way slowly to the front of the stage and the Barbican Theatre gave the man and his band a warm, heartfelt welcome.

Here, in front of us, stood a true mythic figure of music, one of the last men left standing from that famous generation of American musicians who defined modern jazz.  And this guy was going to play. For us. The expectation in the room was almost overwhelming.

Sonny Rollins – North Sea Jazz Festival, July 2010 – Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

Despite the rapturous ovation that greeted the band, the gig started slowly. The quintet, slightly adrift on the wide Barbican stage, searched in vain for its mojo.  The opening tune, an 8-bar two chord vamp, had all the charm of a raucous soundcheck, and it took fully three songs, (half an hour), for the engineers to find a proper balance, allowing Bob Cranshaw’s bass and Russell Malone’s guitar to finally emerge from the murk.

Riding over the top of the band was Mr Rollin’s enormous, vocalised tenor saxophone. Sonny Rollins may no longer be able to outrun an advancing wall of lava, but his sound is still volcanic: broad, rough-hewn, scratchy as scoria.

His solos reminded me of a saxophone-playing friend of mine, who once commented to me “The best thing about Sonny Rollins is he doesn’t have any licks you can copy.” Even if the first third of the concert lacked inspiration, you got the impression that Rollins and his collaborators never gave up searching, grasping for the moment when everything would come together.

The “click” finally happened on the fourth tune: an unnamed funk groove, Russell Malone laying out an unexpected line worthy of a James Brown rhythm section. Watkin and Cranshaw obliged by accelerating the tempo ever-so-slightly, and finally the taper was lit.

Rollins waddled along the line of footlights, pouring out notes, quoting show-tunes and Pop Goes the Weasel, stopping in front of audience members to dedicate a phrase or two to each, before moving on, his saxophone swaying like a cradle in the storm, waiting for the bough to break. The gig was on.

Sonny Rollins – New York, September 2010 – Mr Mystery (Creative Commons)

As the evening progressed, the man’s purpose become clear – he was here to play music, and to play as much music as he could.  Only a musician of Rollins’ stature could flick off a rendition of Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood without ever bothering to play the melody. The climax came on the penultimate tune: a swinging version of Why Was I Born? where Rollins paced the width of the stage while engineering a solo of uncommon beauty.

There were some unusual choices of settings for his sidemen to take the spotlight: a slow, early-set ballad was the moment for Mr Rollins to trade fours with Sammy Figueroa’s congas, while the 3/4 tempo of Some Day I’ll Find You provided the frame for Kobie Watkins to let loose on drums. Russell Malone’s guitar was consistently tasteful, and occasionally audacious – he even permitted himself an extended reconstruction of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on a middle chorus.

The gig closed with a few words of wisdom from the man himself, who recalled with humility his younger days gigging in London with Ronnie Scott and friends.  The band stretched out for a rollicking calypso finale on Don’t Stop the Carnival, and the groove bounced in our heads all the way home along the Northern Line and through the foggy streets of Islington.

This was a gig that, if only momentarily transcendant, was all the more special for those rare, precious minutes when Sonny Rollins – stately, majestic and deliberate in his ninth decade – made the stage positively glow.

Image: Evert-Jan (Creative Commons)

EDIT: 22/11/2010 Corrected name of guitarist (Russell Malone) and spelling of Sammy Figueroa

5 thoughts on “Sonny Rollins in London

  1. I saw Rollins with a similar band a few years back and it was a similar feeling. It took a long time for the band to get going but Rollins was kicking ass from the beginning.

  2. @Terri – thanks for the corrections – edits are now made.
    @klari – oui, effectivement, un happybofin
    @Sunna – I got the impression that Sonny himself was also searching for his groove, and found it about halfway through the gig. After that, he played great!

  3. To the still by and large unexperienced jazz amateur I remain it’s always an eerie pleasure to read this kind of review where your love for the man is fighting with an obvious search for objectivity along the lines of slightly absconse passages at times… (Nice !)

    Absconse for ME, it goes without saying. 🙂

    And yet there’s a definite charm to it not unlike reading a poem you can’t quite grasp and still can’t help but find beautiful.



    Oh, and Internet Grammar Nazi would also like to point
    out that it should be “became” and not “become” under the second photograph… ^^

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