October 5, 2007


Spirit Chaser (DAVID YAFFE, October 22, 2007, The Nation)

Critics being critics, we found ourselves milling around the Carnegie Hall bar after the first set to debate what it all meant. How was Sonny's tone? Were the melodic ideas sufficiently developed? How could the music possibly live up to the mountain of expectations? For twenty minutes, he had half a century of jazz to live up to. As we were looking to Sonny for some sort of deliverance, I was reminded of his reply, in last month's Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire, when he was asked what living person he most admired: "Maybe my plumber."

By the time the second set began, Rollins was back with the electric bass, the congas, the amplification. It was a reckoning of Sonny past, present and, still, the future. The rest of us catalogue and live by our memories and box sets, our iPods, our fetishized versions of our past selves, but Sonny, who hates listening to his own recordings, lives in the perpetual present, good, bad or indifferent. It was a retrospective event for a jazz titan who avoids nostalgia. He pumped his fist in the air and, to the strains of "Don't Stop the Carnival," assured us that he would be seeing us again, perhaps not in another fifty years but maybe in another twenty.

Rollins had taken the stage at Carnegie Hall a little over a month after the death of Max Roach on August 16, and as we were marveling at the musical splendors of fifty years ago, we could also remember Roach blazing a calypso beat under Rollins on "St. Thomas" in 1956 or telepathically matching Rollins's phrases pulse by pulse, riding the cymbals of the musical civil rights essay "Freedom Suite" in 1958 (which Roach would follow, in 1960, with We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite). Roach's support on Saxophone Colossus's "Moritat" was steady swing, with propulsive drum rolls between the choruses; when Haynes traded fours with Rollins on the same tune, the dialogue was looser, almost coy.

I talked to Rollins on the phone a week before the gig, and he told me that, although he was a Nation subscriber, he would try not to hold it against the magazine if it said something nice about him--self-criticism is integral to his work ethic--and that as far as he was concerned, Roach, along with Coltrane and Miles and so many departed compatriots and loved ones, were still with him. All he had to do, he said, was summon their memory and they were right next to him on the bandstand. Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.

At Carnegie Hall, Rollins gave us a twenty-minute exploration of time past, but he is as fixated on time future as ever, in search of a musical ideal that no one has heard yet. When I asked him about the context of the performance--and whether he would want to perform in new settings, perhaps with a symphony orchestra--he replied, "What did that cat say? The medium is the message?" But for Rollins, Marshall McLuhan's maxim should be reversed: the medium is not the message. It's something that can't be measured in an all-star reunion; whoever is onstage with him, he alone is the one who brings it with him when everything is right. After the performance, 57th Street beckoned with digital distractions unfathomable the first time Rollins played Carnegie Hall. He is still looking ahead to the next gig. As he told me when I first interviewed him a dozen years ago, "I practice all the time, and I'll be there when the spirit comes."

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 5, 2007 8:41 PM
Comments for this post are closed.