March 16, 2006


Sonny Rollins played at the venerable Gusman Center in downtown Miami on Tuesday night. Printed above Sonny's name on the ticket were the words "Sax God"...not as poetic as "Saxophone Colossus," which is what I've previously seen printed on Rollins tickets (and the name of perhaps his greatest album), but a more efficient use of letters and syllables and just as accurate. Given the turnout I've seen for other jazz concerts in Miami, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the theater was sold out.

The evening started with some functionaries presenting Sonny with (1) a proclamation from Mayor and City Commissioners declaring March 14 "Sonny Rollins Day" and (2) a key to the City. For some reason, they made the speeches and held up the proclamation and key without Rollins being on stage. But soon enough, Sonny ambled out with his peculiar stiff-legged shuffle gait, and accepted the awards with a few quick "thank you's" and a bemused smile on his face. By the way, his walk is about the only sign of his age catching up to him (he's 75). Although his beard is all white and his hair is more snow than coal, he is still tall and powerful looking and his odd, nasal voice (think Muppet) is still strong and clear. But his walk is that of an old man, perhaps a former football player or basketball player whose knees no longer have any cartilage.

After the brief ceremony, the band took the stage: Sonny, Clifton Anderson (Sonny's nephew) on trombone, Bobby Broom (who I went to jazz camp with almost 30 years ago) on guitar, Victor Lewis on drums, and Bob Cranshaw, who has been playing electric bass behind Sonny for more than 20 years.

Sonny Rollins is, without debate, the World's Greatest Living Jazz Musician, but his performances can be uneven. When he's feeling it, no musician can bring an audience to greater heights of musical ecstasy; but when he can't find it, Sonny will noodle around on the head of a tune for a few minutes and then turn things over to the band. Sometimes, both phenomena happen in the same concert, and Tuesday night was fairly typical.

During the first 2 numbers, neither Sonny nor the band could seem to get much momentum going. The first number, a medium tempo standard (that I didn't recognize) wasn't helped by the fact that it featured a long drum seemed out of place so early in the show and didn't seem to build up from anything. The second tune was "Park Place," a calypso (a Sonny trademark and a nod to his West Indies heritage), but it was a strangely subdued example of the genre. Sonny's playing wasn't bad...his distinctive tone was strong and there were some interesting phrases...but it wasn't what we came to hear from the WGLJM.

Ah, but then Sonny segued from the calypso to the opening notes Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood," and in an instant, there was magic in the air. As is his custom, Sonny started pacing the stage while playing, at times criss-crossing a small false stage front that was about a step below the main stage as though he were "walking the bar." His sound became magisterial, his ideas began flowing more smoothly, and the rhythm section starting laying down a cohesive, firm foundation for Sonny's excursion. (Bob Crenshaw's bass playing is especially worth mentioning. It took me the better part of 15 years to get used to Sonny playing with an electric bass, but now I can't imagine any other backing for him. Crenshaw's tone is as supple as one can coax from an electric bass, and I've come to believe that Sonny's thunderous tone would overwhelm an acoustic instrument.) The music continued at that unsurpassable level for then next 2 numbers, "They Say It's Wonderful" and an old waltz, "Someday I'll Find You." "They Say" was Rollins at his jaunty, euphoric best. Riffs, swinging lines, shouts, growls and wails poured out of his horn in a torrent of power, intellect, warmth and humor. If his solo had lasted for 2 or 3 hours, I don't think anyone in the house would have left his seat. He was a bit more contemplative on the waltz, but no less active and engaging. Just amazing.

Sonny and the band throttled back a bit on the last 2 tunes on the main part of the program: "Nishi," a blues Rollins wrote on a trip to Japan and one of his signature calypsos "Don't Stop the Carnival." Although the playing was fine all around, it was almost as if the band (and the audience) was a little worn out (physically and emotionally) from the "E" ticket ride we had all been on for the previous 40 minutes. Still, a scaled-back Rollins is better than 100% of pretty much anyone else.

After a long standing ovation, the band returned to the stage for an encore, Sonny's classic "Tenor Madness" (which he recorded in his only studio encounter with his friend and rival, John Coltrane). Rollins and Anderson played the head in unison, at a slightly slower pace than usual and with a real emphasis on swinging the melody. In his solo, Sonny dug into the blues changes with a more gusto and authority than he had on "Nishi." Towards the end, Sonny and Victor Lewis engaged in a tasty exchange of 4's which led into the final chorus. The finale was a great reminder that for all of his exploring and searching, Rollins's playing has (and has always had) at its core, the essential elements of jazz that have pertained since the days of Armstrong: swing and blues.

So March 16, 2006 may have been Sonny Rollins Day in Miami, but it was also another reminder that in the jazz world every day is Sonny Rollins Day.

Posted by at March 16, 2006 7:05 PM

saw him once in ny -- part of the newport jazz festival. it was a double bill with gato barbieri. the festival folks made the unfortunate decision that barbieri should follow sonny rollins (to be truthfull it was a barbieri crowd)

rollins was brilliant -- the theatre began to empty after barbieri's second song.

Posted by: jpt at March 16, 2006 7:19 PM

I was at the same concert, and as soon as Sonny finished we went across 7th Avenue to the Carnegis Deli for dinner.

A few years later, they paired Rollins with Brandford Marsalis (who was then developing a name) and wanted to have Sonny open and Marsalis play after intermission. Branford was smart enough to insist that he go before Sonny.

Posted by: Foos at March 16, 2006 7:47 PM
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