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

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.

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.

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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