When I discovered last month that Sonny Rollins would close out the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I started making plans to get there from Minneapolis. After listening to him play five songs over 90 minutes Sunday night in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, the experience was worth every penny. Money is fungible. But being exposed to such profound artistry generates an impression that lasts a lifetime.
I thought age had inexorably worn Rollins down. He turned 80 last September, and the last few times I have caught him over the past ten or twelve years, he had seemed unable to plumb his sources of inspiration as deeply and continuously as he had when I first started attending his concerts in the mid-1980s. But Sunday was vintage Rollins, a jaw-dropping display of improvisational gusto made all the more spectacular and poignant by its Lion in Winter dynamic.
Rollins came out with a quintet that included guitarist Peter Bernstein, percussionist Sammy Figueroa, drummer Jerome Jennings and his bassist since 1962, Bob Cranshaw. He opened with a song Cranshaw later told me was called “Don Cherry,” after the former Ornette Coleman trumpeter who also played with Rollins. It was classic mid-level Sonny: He quickly established a brief phrase as a motif, a placeholder to which he could return after exploring ten or fifteen second variations off it literally twenty or thirty times, with each improvisation a unique construction. These variations were by turns incredibly fast, technically gymnastic and tonally elastic, from a well-deep honk to an ascension just below a shriek. The song lasted nearly half an hour and likely amazed anyone who hadn’t previously seen Rollins perform.
A ballad—Cranshaw called it “JJ,” presumably in honor of trombonist J.J. Johnson—gave Rollins a chance to showcase the resonant, nasal tone that he first acquired by emulating Coleman Hawkins. There were some rewarding tempo shifts and a good dialogue with Bernstein. By Rollins’ standards, nothing special.
But then came a calypso, Sonny’s preferred rhythm for pinwheeling pyrotechnics. Entitled “Global Warming” and composed by Rollins in 1998, it followed by 40 years his legendary “Freedom Suite” in support of the Civil Rights Movement—and in fact Rollins himself has made the association, referring to global warming as an issue of similar urgency for the 21st Century. But the torrent of music that came out of his horn rendered politics and everything else moot for the next twenty minutes, as Rollins cavorted in near-vintage splendor, as potent and visceral as a waterfall—you can choose to be spellbound by some of the particular details or awestruck by the general effect.
After a strong rendition of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” that gave the sidemen room to express themselves (particularly a section where Rollins “traded fours” with the drummer Jennings), it was time for “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” the calypso which has become Sonny’s standard closer. But this “Carnival” was unforgettable, as Rollins entered another zone, a wayback machine to his vintage potency. When he is in this mode, the phrases tumble out in scintillating, geometrically perfect shapes, as theoretically implausible as movie special effects and yet utterly organic in the way they land in your soul—and they keep streaming until you have to dance and tears start coming out of your eyes. Most of the capacity crowd was on its feet and more than a few were crying.
Rollins knew he had entered that golden palace in his muse: He uncharacteristically started mugging for the crowd; swaying one way and then sway-backed pivoting the other way (he walks and stands with a stoop, as if he has bad hips); thrusting his right fist up in the air or punching it forward even as he keep changing keys with his left hand; going straight on at the cell phone photographers and professional picture-takers down front; and prowling the stage from side to side. It was long past the 7 p.m. closing of the Festival when he finally finished the tune, but the ovation was so long and vociferous that he added a brief coda for an encore, a two-minute re-entry back to reality. Then the performers and the audience levitated from the scene.