Sonny Rollins, Live at 80, on CD

Photo: John Abbott

A year ago, almost to the day, I raved in this space about Sonny Rollins' 80th birthday concert, which I'd seen the night before at the Beacon Theater in New York City. I wrote: "A few thousand jazz fans are feeling lightheaded this morning," still "marveling" at having finally seen "a concert that made them tremble and that people will be talking about years from now."

This week, Rollins released a new CD, Road Shows, Vol. 2, which consists mainly of highlights from this concert, and I opened the package with some trepidation. Would the music, as a purely audio phenomenon, hold up to my memory of it? Or did my dizziness at the time stem, at least in part, from the thrill of being there, as part of the audience, at an event of such high expectations?

The answer: Yes, it holds up. This is a dazzling album, a showcase for a jazz improviser whose mastery leaves all other living tenor saxophonists in a dusty shadow.

I have seen Rollins in live concert a couple dozen times in as many years. Usually there's a 10– or 15–minute stretch when the world stands still, the hair stands on end, and he uncorks a solo that locks onto some rhythm of the earth. The rest of the concert might be a bit vague; his band might not be up to the standards of the leader; but that quarter-hour of magic makes it all worthwhile.

At the Beacon concert, which went on for 2½ hours without intermission, nearly all of it was breathtaking.

The evening was star-studded with guests, and the highlight came toward the end, when Ornette Coleman, who was also 80, shuffled onto the stage and the two traded fours and eights on "Sonnymoon for Two" for 15 minutes or so. (They had never before played together in public.) Ornette got off to a shaky start (he hadn't warmed up back stage), but after the first few bars, he made the song his own; Rollins met him halfway toward "harmolodic" land, and then they went off on a meeting of minds and souls that was something like the duet between computer and alien-spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Musicologists will be analyzing this for years. In the meantime, we can gape.

Much praise as well for Roy Hargrove's solo on "I Can't Get Started;" Christian McBride and Roy Haynes' agile anchoring on the Sonny-Ornette exchange; and Sonny's new, stripped-down band, his best in years.

My only problem with the album is curatorial. The first and last of the disc's six tracks, "They Say It's Wonderful" and "St. Thomas," come from a concert in Japan that Rollins played around the same time. I'm very glad to have the former, but I would rather have a multi-disc boxed set of the entire Beacon concert. It's also a puzzle why Rollins (who produced the album and released it on his own DoxyJazz label) included "In a Sentimental Mood," on which Jim Hall plays lead and Rollins doesn't play at all. And "Sonnymoon" should have been the final or penultimate track, as it was at the concert. On the CD, it's Track 3, and as a result, the rest of the album, great as it is, comes off a bit anticlimactic.

But these are quibbles. Anyone who loves modern jazz needs to get this album. The sound quality is pretty good, too.

deckeda's picture

... that same 15 minutes. Back in the early '90s I attened a Rollins performance at a small venue. I think he appeared with Koko Taylor and a few other mainly blues-oriented artists.

We loved Taylor's show but distinctly remember at one point during Rollins looking at each other in disbelief, all thinking the same thing: "Is this for real?" He was lifting the roof off the place and we were all going wherever it was he was taking us.

HalSF's picture

I remember reading your post about the Beacon show with a surge of envy; it sounded like such an amazing night. It was a kick, then, to see this post and then turn right around and buy the album, which swings for the fences and beyond. What a pleasure, curatorial quirks notwithstanding.

paulsw11's picture

The BBC showed an Arena documentary last weekend of this concert with interviews with some of the band such as Bob Cranshaw, Jim Hall, Sammy Figueora, Roy Haynes, Christia McBride, Roy Hargrove, Stanley Crouch and Ornette Coleman.

The moment of magic for me was "Global Warming" which I have been replaying everyday on iPlayer. If in the UK here it is: 

A cd or dvd of this concert would be perfect.



BBC website: 2011 was the 82nd year in the extraordinary life of arguably the greatest saxophone player in the world, Sonny Rollins. Four decades ago, as a young filmmaker and aspiring musician, Dick Fontaine followed Rollins up onto the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan during one of his legendary escapes from the perils of 'the jazz life'. Today, still resisting stereotype and compromise, and revered by a new generation of young musicians, Rollins continues his single-minded search for meaning in his music and his life. Dick Fontaine's film is built around the explosive energy of Sonny's 80th Birthday Concert, where legendary figures Roy Haynes, Jim Hall and Ornette Coleman join him to celebrate his journey so far, his music and its future for a new generation.