The Present Moment

Sonny Rollins at the Summit

Then he went into ballad mode, always a titillating moment—especially in recent years, when he has consistently reached into the golden-age songbag marked, "Not standards, but worthy." In addition to "You're Mine, You," the choice surprise was "I'll Look Around," a song Billie Holiday recorded for Decca that I've never heard anyone else do. In Rollins's interpretation, the key phrase flirted with "I'll String Along With You," and the whole performance, much of it in his upper-mid-register, mined a legato gentleness reminiscent of his '50s work and, in terms of singers, at least as suggestive of Nat Cole as Holiday. On an uptempo "Why Was I Born?" he returned to his current style of resolute paraphrase, spinning a zillion notes around the trellis of the tune, yet never disguising the tune, this after a long drum solo that served only to spur him on. If he had a hammer—Sonny unflappable in black shades and white ascot, rocking in rhythm, playing all the notes in the chords and scales, and somehow still keeping the melody aloft.

After a 16-bar original that featured Cranshaw, whose rapid strumming eventually quieted those who consider bass solos a boon to conversation, Rollins opened up the floodgates on the oddest ballad to join his repertoire in recent years (or rejoin; he has recalled trying it out in the '60s): "Sweet Leilani." When he played it in New York two years ago, the antic strangeness suggested a provocation, however benevolent. His subsequent recording (on This Is What I Do) showed how smitten he was with a virtually forgotten 1937 Oscar-winning, gold-record-earning lullaby that bandleader Harry Owens, who wrote it for his daughter, reluctantly refashioned for Bing Crosby and the movie Waikiki Wedding, initiating a brief national vogue for all things Hawaiian. That Rollins, who knows his radio singers, chose to invigorate a song that even in those days was considered treacly speaks volumes about his respect for melody and the pop culture of his youth, as well as his exceptionally transfigurative powers. At B.B. King's, he went at it for 25 minutes, the definition of a tour de force, basking in the pretty tune, but with a familiar ardor unlike the quizzical romance of the stellar recording; then he rended it into its components, his tone growing darker and more rugged, until—around the 20-minute mark and in prelude to a long exchange with Campbell that was parsed in fours, threes, or both (confused the hell out of me)—he was chortling, growling, baying. Which is to say he was deep in a world beyond notes, rapt in the language of saxophonics that only he knows.

A gift and a miracle, at B.B. King's
photo: Hiroyuki Ito
A gift and a miracle, at B.B. King's

As they say at Passover, it would have been enough. But then he leaped into a cadenza that signaled his partying closer, the calypso "Don't Stop the Carnival," after which the crowd rose and roared long enough to merit a brief but generously lyrical encore, "Where or When." Afterward, I raced down to the Jazz Standard to hear Jason Moran, who I very much enjoyed, so I will not suggest that Rollins obviates the desire to hear anyone else; on the contrary, I think that total mastery helps sensitize one to the present moment with all its variety and options. Sonny Rollins gives a tremendous amount, and having taken it in, one stands a little straighter, breathes a little more deeply, and feels for at least a little while utterly in harmony with here and now.

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