An all-star audience turned out for Sonny Rollins’s Carnegie Hall show September 18, this year’s be-there-or-be-square jazz event. Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson sat two rows in front of me, and I also spotted Lee Konitz, Jimmy Heath, Lou Donaldson, and Yusef Lateef; friends report sighting Pat Metheny, Joe Lovano, and John Zorn. Because Rollins typically plays New York once annually, his local appearances take on the weight of deific visitations. As much anticipation awaits them as once awaited new releases by Coltrane or Miles, though for a different reason—what everybody’s hoping for isn’t a clue to where jazz is heading next, just insight into Sonny’s state of mind.
Still, I don’t recall there being quite this much fevered speculation since his 1985 solo concert at the Museum of Modern Art, where he made up for a hesitant 25-minute set with a euphoric 35-minute encore (when the tension gets to Rollins himself, the results can be bizarre). In previous years, he’s often sought to increase ticket sales, or maybe just lessen the pressure on himself, by hosting another marquee name. But the only extra-added attraction this time out—and nobody could ask for better—was his own legend: the shadow of youthful greatness that’s been striding onstage ahead of him and challenging him to keep step for half a century now, since Saxophone Colossus in 1956.
The standing ovation that greeted Rollins—who was flanked only by drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride; no piano or guitar, no other horn, nothing that needed to be plugged in—may have been as much for that shadow as for the man himself, but not the standing ovation the trio received at the conclusion of its 50-minute set. Although the concert was billed as a 50th-anniversary celebration of Rollins’s first Carnegie Hall appearance (at which he also led a piano-less trio as part of an all-star package featuring Thelonious Monk, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, and Dizzy Gillespie, among others), its real impetus was the chance discovery of tapes from that night’s performances in an unmarked box at the Library of Congress three years ago. This was the find that yielded two sets by Monk with Coltrane, released by Blue Note to hosannas in 2005. We’ve yet to hear the rest, but in the same spirit with which he’s been making vintage clips available on his website—and perhaps still
mentally competing with Coltrane—this summer Rollins announced plans to release the three numbers he performed that night
on his own label, side by side with new versions to be recorded with the same spartan instrumentation this year at Carnegie Hall, inviting us to contrast and compare.
Just the prospect of hearing Rollins once more forgoing a chording instrument, as he did on Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite way back when, would have been enough, but this was history in the remaking. Needless to say, the show sold out weeks in advance.
So how was it? Before telling you why it had me walking on air (the first half, anyway—an opinion I trust I share with most of those in attendance), let me acknowledge some dissenting points of view. “Too much vibrato,” Lee Konitz, who himself employs very little, told me when I bumped into him outside during intermission—a perfect example of why musicians don’t really make good critics, since they tend to impose their own aesthetic on everyone else. Konitz, our greatest living saxophonist after Rollins and Ornette Coleman, said he was looking forward to the second set, featuring Rollins’s working band and hopefully including some calypsos.
What’s more, a dear friend of mine whom I envy for also having been at the ’57 concert complained that McBride didn’t swing. You should know, however, that this is someone who often talks as if she believes no one under the age of 70 does. And I often have to agree with her—but not about McBride, at 35 two full generations younger than either Rollins (77) or Haynes (82). McBride fulfilled every requirement of a bassist in this context, beginning with providing a solid harmonic anchor. Though fleet and virtuosic to the point of showing off, his solo on “Mack the Knife” kept the familiar melody clearly in mind and maintained Rollins’s slashing tempo. Best of all, he sensed exactly when to defer to his elders in what gradually became a dialogue on the value of dynamics between the god of tenor saxophone and a god of drums.
A frequent complaint I heard in the days after was that Rollins never cut loose with chorus after chorus—that on the long, contemplative “Some Enchanted Evening,” he didn’t even take a solo as such, following a hesitant stab at one on the opening “Sonnymoon for Two,” where he and Haynes were still feeling each other out. For me, the mock-aria from South Pacific—an unlikely vehicle for anyone but Rollins—was the evening’s glory. He and Haynes didn’t exactly trade fours on it for 10 minutes running, and they didn’t exactly not; their exchanges followed the rules of conversation, not metrics. Analytical rather than discursive or ecstatic, Rollins treated the melody to an endless series of variations, slowing down his vibrato and dropping into a subtone to summon up the ghosts of both Enzio Pinza and Coleman Hawkins, all the while moving in and out of tempo within phrases shaped to Haynes’s elegant brushstrokes. Even those who might have wished for conventional improvised choruses had to agree that it was magic. So was “Mack the Knife,” highlighted by McBride’s solo and crafty fours between Rollins and Haynes practically from beginning to end.
The second half, with Rollins supported by trombone, guitar, electric bass, drums, and congas on a pair of cheery riffs and a closing calypso, figured to be anticlimactic, and it was. Konitz, I’m told, was gone before the calypso, which was probably just as well—he’d have objected to the interminable drum solo on top of an interminable conga solo, and he’d have been right. The contrast between the two sets revealed itself visually: In the nightcap, Rollins literally fronted a rhythm section, whereas if he’d moved any closer to the drums during the opener, he’d have been able to scoop Haynes’s beats into the bell of his horn.
Not that Haynes made all the difference. Rollins is a song man: Even when he briefly embraced free-form in the early ’60s, hiring Don Cherry and Billy Higgins away from Ornette Coleman, he continued to use the occasional Broadway number as his launch. He may be able to forgo a chording instrument, but not chords. Blues and calypsos may give him plenty to work with rhythmically. But when Rollins is on, rhythm takes care of itself through the combination of his island heritage and a sense of comic timing worthy of Jack Benny.
Not that Haynes didn’t also benefit from the encounter. Generally recognized as our greatest living drummer now that Max Roach is gone, he’s lately become overbearing when leading his own groups. Matching wits with Rollins, though, he regained the subtlety that earned him his reputation in the first place. (As an aside, Concord has just reissued 1957’s The Sound of Sonny, one of Rollins’s few recorded meetings with Haynes. Canonical only insofar as everything by Rollins from that period is, it’s nevertheless delightful, no less thanks to Sonny Clark—if every pianist comped as sparely yet decisively as he does here, no saxophonist would ever dream of going piano-less.)
What we’ve long wished for from Rollins is greater intimacy, if not in terms of smaller venues (no way he’s going back to playing clubs), then in terms of trimmer ensembles. We’ve wanted to hear him mix it up with players of equal stature (Haynes comes close) and top-notch relative newcomers like McBride. Most of all, we’ve wanted surprise—not necessarily for him to break with jazz convention (if this were Ornette Coleman, Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson would have been onstage), just for him to break his own established routines. For 50 minutes at Carnegie, he came close to giving us all of this. The shame is that a good part of the crowd missed some of it, kept waiting in line for close to half an hour at a single will-call window—poor planning on someone’s part. Rollins issued an apology on his website the morning after, but even factoring in the second set, he has nothing else to apologize for. It was some enchanted evening, all right.