One of the indelible images of Sonny Rollins’s career is of his practicing alone on the Williamsburg Bridge during his 1959-61 sabbatical from public performance. But the tenor saxophonist is no longer a solo act, even though he was billed as such for his show Monday evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. The onetime “Saxophone Colossus,” as a 1956 album title had it, has become a band leader, and has turned conserving his strength into a winning musical strategy.
Rollins turned 81 on Sept. 7, the same day he was named one of the recipients of the 2011 Kennedy Center Honors. He now walks stiffly, and usually hunches over to play — although at Monday’s show, a few phrases caused him to stand straight up. He blew vigorously, with a sweet, high tone that occasionally shifted to honking bass. But he yielded frequently to his accompanists, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Bob Cranshaw, conga player Sammy Figueroa and drummer Kobie Watkins. All played solos, although Cranshaw didn’t step out much. Perhaps the bassist, who’s played with Rollins decades longer than the others, hasn’t quite gotten used to his boss’s newly democratic mode.
Like most jazz veterans, Rollins passed through many phases, including a more commercial period during the disco era. His current style recalls the ’50s, when jazz players competed to blast the blandest pop tunes the furthest into outer space, yet also embraced warmly syncopated Latin and Caribbean styles. On Monday, Rollins claimed the melodies of several pop standards, but let them escape almost as quickly as he grabbed them. Calypso and samba were more prominent, underlying most of the music, save for occasional forays into blues.
Rollins has long been known for working without a pianist, but Bernstein basically had that role, playing in a rippling, percussive style. He took most of the prominent solos, although it was Watkins who got to “duel” with Rollins in a crowd-pleasing sequence that allowed the sax player to channel his energy into short bursts. Figueroa switched to shaker for the brief closing number, which encapsulated the 65-minute concert: jaunty and likable, with flashes of wit and verve yet diminished power. The audience clearly didn’t expect more; when Rollins declined to play an encore, there were sighs of disappointment but no boos or catcalls.