The Present Moment

Sonny Rollins at the Summit

"Give yourself a gift," Marcus Aurelius advised, "the present moment." Aldous Huxley populated his island paradise Pala with parrots that fly around squawking, "Here and now, boys, here and now!" All the wise men agree—the key to a healthy life is alertness: a refusal to smother the brief candle with ruminations or apprehensions, an avowal to wake up and keep waking up. In art, the existential dilemma translates into devotion to the elusive light of inspiration, a challenge enacted nowhere with greater clarity and urgency than in jazz—where the composer composes in the arena, without benefit of eraser, white-out, tape dubs, or retakes—and by nobody with a more exhilarating sense of adventure than jazz's finest living practitioner, Sonny Rollins.

It was a remarkable week: Verizon colluded with the Jazz Standard to present five solo piano recitals (about which next time); Jazz Alliance International jammed the same room with a dozen or so trumpeters in tribute to Fats Navarro, and Clark Terry proved it's what you play and not how much that wins the day; Tony Bennett sang his heart out for an hour and a half at Carnegie Hall (also for Verizon); Lincoln Center remembered Art Blakey; and Ted Nash reconvened Odeon. But when Rollins returns to town, after a too typical two-year absence, time must have a stop; the present moment is suddenly lit in boldface italics, and even after hanging on every measure for 95 minutes, one is disinclined to get the clock rolling again, even though it would trigger a dreamy postmortem on the immediate past. Because his records are sometimes rush-jobs proffering material that hasn't yet been (in his words) road-tested, and because spontaneity is his shield against cliché and ennui, a Rollins concert is a gift and, when he plays as well as he did at B.B. King's Blues Club and Grill on September 21, a miracle, too.

The most dilatory moment in the first set was one of the most perversely fascinating. Midway through an achingly slow and lovely reading of "You're Mine, You" (a rather obscure John Greene ballad that Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan recorded), he turned to his percussionist of the past couple of years, Kimati Dinizulu, and attempted, or so it seemed, to engage him in an exchange of phrases—fours, maybe. Well, who plays conga solos at that tempo? Dinizulu appeared at a loss, but Rollins nudged him with rhythmic and melodic figures, and Dinizulu attempted to respond, and Rollins kept it up as the music banked into a cloud of suspenseful haplessness, until he decided he had gotten all he was going to get, and then returned to his suave blue-ballad interpretation of the 1930s song. On tape, this would be fairly stupefying, but in performance it was quirkily thrilling, since no one onstage or in the audience knew how it was going to play out. When he returned to the theme, people who had been leaning forward in their seats now sat back, shaking their heads in wonder and thinking or murmuring—at my table, it was murmuring—"only Sonny." Jazz at its best is never entirely musical; it's also theater.

A minute into the opening number, "East of the Sun" (probably the only great standard written for an undergraduate show—in 1935, by a Princeton student, Brooks Bowman, who died in a car accident at 23 en route to his first job, with a film studio), I was reminded that Rollins's genius is that of the instinctively discriminating editor. It's a talent that every artist possesses or strives for—knowing what to omit, recognizing when the canvas is finished. In jazz, there's no help, no second opinion, no second chance, except the next number and the next. Rollins has always had an uncanny sense of how to craft a phrase, embellish it, erect a structure, cap it off; it's there in his earliest work—"There Are Such Things," from 1955, for one fantastic example. His mellow, fluent involvement with the melody of "East of the Sun" at B.B. King's made me wonder why no one else can play like that—an old tune, done to death, yet made ripe and timely, cagily swung, with an authority that brooks no appeal. No one else soloed on it.

The band became prominent on "Global Warming," the recent original he plays most often, and a good raucous theme it is. One often hears gripes about Rollins's bands, sometimes with good cause, but this one suits him. Trombonist Clifton Anderson is an uneven soloist, but he rides the time and is mostly charged with beefing up the heads, which he does in glistening unison. The rhythm section, four strong with the addition of Dinizulu, is of a piece. Stephen Scott is an ideal pianist for his rhythmic comping (rendered tinny by B.B. King's otherwise pragmatic sound system) and individual solo style, and drummer Tommy Campbell, who worked with Rollins in the '80s, is back with a more efficient, understated style. The ageless Bob Cranshaw, who nonetheless will turn 70 before the year is out, feeds Rollins the chords the way he likes to hear them; properly mixed, his deft, concise phrases were unblemished by the buzz of electric bass. And yet they are all at a disadvantage as soloists, because when Rollins isn't playing you hanker for his return, and when he is, you don't need to hear from anyone else. After a round of solos on "Global Warming," he pounced back with triumphant growls and tenacious riffs, two-note moans and ecstatic riffs, arpeggios pirouetting impudently through two octaves and staunch riffs: marathon man at the summit.

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