Sonny Rollins Jazzes Things Up At S.F. Festival

Saxophonist may be getting older, but he hasn’t lost any of his showmanship.

SAN FRANCISCO — Live performances lay at the heart of jazz. And
among those keeping that heart beating strong and steady through the years
has been saxophone great Sonny Rollins.

Musicians such as Rollins can improvise anywhere, but they can also be swept
up by the enthusiasm of their audience to drop inhibitions. In an air-tight studio,
these performers have to work harder to cut loose. So, it goes without saying
that jazz fans look for their favorite musicians to achieve their greatest heights in
concert halls and clubs.

This certainly seems true of any fan of Rollins, an extraordinary saxophonist
who is widely viewed as the greatest living jazz musician. True to form, Rollins
served as the high priest of jazz last Thursday night at San Francisco’s Davies
Symphony Hall, where he performed as part of the annual San Francisco Jazz
Festival. At 66, Rollins may be slowing down, but his talents and drive are still
enormous, belying his age with every toot of his sax.

Helped by great musicianship and the hall’s marvelous acoustics, the Sonny
Rollins Sextet put on a terrific show that by the end left the sold-out crowd
roaring in a mixture of joy and disbelief.

Setting a blistering tone for the evening, he opened up with a wonderful
rendition of his hypnotic, Latin-tinged original “BIJ.” The first of the 10
compositions that he would perform, “BIJ” is vintage Rollins. The melody seems
familiar, even hummable, yet Rollins works it around so many different ways that
at times it sounds as if he is playing three horns, not one.

It was Rollins as the jazz world knows him, and as he will always be
remembered. Rollins transformed the tenor sax in the 1950s with a half dozen
astonishing studio recordings for the Riverside, Blue Note and Contemporary
labels.

Perhaps his most innovative album was a live recording at the Village
Vanguard, which essentially created a new standard for the jazz trio by pairing
Rollins with a bassist and a drummer. Performing in an intimate club, and
without the intrusions of piano accompaniment, Rollins was at his best.
(Thankfully, A Night at the Village Vanguard, first released as a single LP
on Blue Note, can now be heard on 2 CDs containing two hours of music from
this 1957 recording.)

Ever since A Night at the Village Vanguard, critics have complained that
Rollins leaves his best on the bandstand and that his studio dates lack the
majesty of his live appearances. As proof of this, they point to the string of
inconsistent studio albums produced by Rollins since the early 1970s when he
joined the Milestone label, now owned by Fantasy Records (the best of these
recordings are collected on a recently-released two-CD compilation, Silver
City
).

The solution for Rollins’ fans might seem simple: Just hear this titan live. The
problem is that Rollins, a shy, sensitive man who periodically withdraws from
the public eye, performs in concert only rarely. Incredibly, given his huge
following, Rollins does just a few dozen gigs around the world each year,
almost never doing back-to-back shows in the same city.

As a result, each Rollins performance takes on an almost religious significance
for his fans. Thursday’s appearance was no different.

Having killed the crowd’s nervous anticipation, Rollins led a couple of pensive
ballads that showed off pianist Stephen Scott as well as trombonist Clifton
Anderson. Next he dedicated a tune to ailing jazz pioneer Horace Silver. “HS”
proved to be a rousing rip-off-the-roof number where Rollins’ solos left his own
bandmates stunned. He then closed his first set with a pleasing signature tune,
“St. Thomas.”

After a 20-minute intermission, Rollins returned with a new outfit — though he
retained his sunglasses — but the same good musical taste.

Though Rollins dominated the evening, Scott drew cheers for his solos on
“Someone to Watch Over Me” while drummer Bruce Cox showed himself as a
worthy successor to the late Art Blakey with adroit stickwork and a bashing solo
on the Rollins original, “Island Lady.”

After about 90 minutes of performing, Rollins might have been forgiven if he had
faded out. But he saved his best performance for last, a reprise of “BIJ” in which
he uncorked a heart-stopping, unbroken solo that lasted a solid 15 minutes.
Seemingly responding to the crowd’s euphoria, Rollins erupted with bar after
bar of improvisations every bit as fine as his classic 1950s performance. Rather
than play an encore — despite the pleas from the packed house — Rollins
returned to the stage to issue a final salute, letting the cheers fade out.

Acclaimed as a jazz legend, Rollins surely has nothing to prove.

But in San Francisco he played as if he was trying to win a reputation for the first
time. I left the concert hoping Fantasy Records, Rollins’ record company, had
the wisdom to capture a night like this on CD. [Tues.,
Oct. 28, 1997, 9 a.m. PDT]