Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sonny Shares An Enduring Joy of Sax

Concert Review

Sonny Rollins
Orchestra Hall
April 9, 2010

With due respect to--and great admiration for--Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, the most legendary living jazz musician in the world today is Sonny Rollins. opens its biography of him by saying, "Sonny Rollins will go down in history as not only the single most enduring tenor saxophonist of the bebop and hard bop era, but also the greatest contemporary jazz saxophonist of them all."

His acclaim as a hugely innovative and influential sax player predates that of John Coltrane, who has been dead for more than 42 years. Going back to 1949, when he was just 19, Rollins recorded with the greatest of the greats, including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Coltrane, with whom he recorded a single song--Tenor Madness--in 1956.

So all this makes simply seeing him--let alone hearing--somewhat of a thrill. Especially as opposed to when I've "seen" Willie Mays, Muhammad Ali, Stephen Sondheim, Harry Belafonte, the late Joe Dimaggio and other old-timers with supreme legacies, Rollins is still doing what made him famous all those years ago.

I don't claim to be a jazz expert and only have one Sonny Rollins album--his Ken Burns' Jazz compilation, which reveals that even in his heyday his sax playing often stayed within a song structure--but in seeing him perform with a quintet last night at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, it would appear that in his 80th year, he doesn't "blaze" like he once did. His playing was measured and beautiful, but didn't often go off onto rapid-fire improvisational solos. I realize that equating "fast and loud" with virtuosity is rather simplistic, but dextrous speed is usually what excites me most within many musical forms, especially those to which I'm more neophyte than connoisseur.

So Rollins' performance, for me, had many more moments that engendered "that's nice" rather than "oh wow!" but the sold out crowd seem to appreciate the master and gave him a well-deserved standing ovation at the end. People like him, who I had also seen in 2008 at Jazzfest (along with Ornette Coleman, but not together), won't be around forever and clearly not readily replaced.

And while his song-not-solo heavy performance, with multiple ballads at that, primarily struck a note of expressive film noir background music than the free-flowing, fast & furious tenor I would have truly relished, it was still quite exquisite to enjoy a Sonny evening in Chicago.

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