Very soon the darkened stage of Royce Hall will spring to life with the first show of our season—Sonny Rollins. What a show and what a life it is.
Sonny Rollins is known as the saxophone colossus and his great gift at expressing joy, sorrow, love, peace and humanity in general through the medium of jazz is legendary. He’s an extraordinary individual who’s lived an incredible life. September 7 marked his 81st birthday. You can celebrate with him (and us) here in Royce Hall Sept. 22 and you can pick up his brand-new live album next week. Road Shows vol. 2 hits stores on the 13th.
Sonny’s 80th-birthday celebration at New York’s Beacon Theatre last September was the jazz event of the year, and the release of Road Shows, vol. 2 allows everybody to share in the proceedings.
More about the album and Sonny’s thoughts from the Doxy/Emarcy Records album release:
Sounding as robust and inventive as ever, the tenor saxophone titan joins forces with an unprecedented array of friends old and new, including Jim Hall, Roy Haynes, Christian McBride, Roy Hargrove, and, most unexpectedly, alto sax revolutionary Ornette Coleman. The festivities add another illustrious chapter to the career of jazz’s most prodigious improviser.
For Rollins, the palpable affection and respect of his peers was the evening’s most profound gift. “I was extraordinarily happy that my colleagues agreed to come and join me for this birthday celebration,” says Rollins, whose delight is evident as he energetically doubles as the concert’s emcee. “It was really a great honor that all these guys came. I was quite touched that everybody seemed anxious to do it.”
On an evening marked by one musical high point after another, the encounter that set fans buzzing for months was the dramatic arrival of Ornette Coleman, who was also in the midst of celebrating his 80th year. While they had never before shared a stage together, Rollins notes that he and Coleman once practiced together on the beach in Malibu back in the mid-1950s when he came out to Los Angeles with the Max Roach–Clifford Brown Quintet.
He didn’t know whether or not Coleman was going to perform at the Beacon until the last minute, so there was no rehearsal before he introduced the harmolodic innovator in the middle of an already riveting performance of Rollins’s blues “Sonnymoon for Two” with the ageless trap master Roy Haynes and bass virtuoso Christian McBride (reprising the pianoless trio format defined by Rollins more than five decades ago). At almost 22 minutes long, “Sonnymoon” is the album’s centerpiece, less a cutting contest than an inspired parallel conversation between jazz’s most surgically acute dissectors of time.
It was a piece Rollins selected with Coleman in mind, “something that would be open enough to lead to free conversation, and could go any place, rather than something like ‘I’m in the Mood for Love,’ with much more set harmonic patterns,” Rollins says. “The blues would be wide enough for Ornette to do whatever he wanted. It was all spontaneous. It was exciting to play with him again so many years later, a nice circular situation.”
Coleman’s indomitable presence on the stage was only one of the evening’s completed circles. McBride and Haynes performed with Rollins at the 2007 Carnegie Hall concert marking his golden anniversary as a bandleader, an epochal event documented on the concluding track of Road Shows, vol. 1.
Guitarist Jim Hall’s participation at the Beacon concert harks back to his crucial role on The Bridge, the 1962 album that announced Rollins’s thrilling return to the scene after his first famous hiatus. They’ve been close ever since, and Rollins was so intent on featuring him on Road Shows that he includes Hall’s sublime rendition of “In a Sentimental Mood,” a piece on which Rollins sits out.
“I love playing with Jim and I really wanted to get him in there,” says Rollins, who notes that a technical glitch on their version of “If Ever I Would Leave You” prevented him from including the performance on the album. “We go back a long way, and I have an affinity for his interpretations. It’s always exhilarating playing with Jim.”
A more recent Rollins associate, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, joins the saxophonist for riveting performances of Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Rain Check” and the beloved standard “I Can’t Get Started.” They’re accompanied by Rollins’s working band featuring guitar star Russell Malone, rising young drummer Kobie Watkins, versatile percussionist Sammy Figueroa, and Bob Cranshaw, the redoubtable bassist who’s been a dependably swinging Rollins mainstay since the early 1960s.
While Rollins first recorded “Rain Check” in 1957, he first heard the original Duke Ellington recording shortly after it was recorded in the early 1940s. “It’s a very important song in jazz history, something that I thought Roy could display his wares on,” Rollins says. “We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, and I thought ‘Rain Check’ was perfect for letting these guys show who they are.”
Rollins spotted Hargrove as an immensely gifted young player nearly two decades ago, and they bonded on a shared love of the American Songbook. It’s an ongoing passion reflected by their mutual caress of Vernon Duke’s soaring melodic line on “I Can’t Get Started.”
“When I first heard Roy and recorded with him back in 1990s I was amazed at his knowledge of jazz repertoire,” Rollins says. “I had some older fellows in the band that didn’t know some of the standards that Roy and I chose. It’s one thing that makes him so special. When he’s playing ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ you’re hearing him today and a history of the music.”
In keeping with the road rubric, the album opens and closes with tracks recorded in Japan about a month after the Beacon concert. A nearly 15-minute up-tempo romp through Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful” serves as a rousing overture for the birthday tracks, and offers yet another example of his capacious gift for turning familiar standards into vehicles for enthralling improvisation.
“That’s a great song to improvise on,” Rollins says. “Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane played it as a ballad, but it’s a great up-tempo song. The band really had a good groove on that one. That’s a tight rhythm section! I think finding drummers is part of my legacy. It’s very important for the drummer I play with to have a certain feel, and Kobie has a beat I feel I can improvise on. I accumulated some good karma by getting guys like Bob, Kobie, Sammy, and Russell Malone, who loves ballads and knows a lot of jazz standards.”
The album closes with a brief run through Rollins’s famous calypso “St. Thomas,” a piece he uses as a sign-off, perhaps following the old show business maxim to always leave the audience wanting more.