Music

Sonny Rollins, Still Full of Sax Drive

At 77, the tenor legend is full of both exuberance and inventiveness.
At 77, the tenor legend is full of both exuberance and inventiveness. (Concord Records)
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Monday, April 21, 2008

The crowd at a sold-out Kennedy Center Concert Hall rose cheering to its feet on Friday night when Sonny Rollins took the stage, and it was a fitting tribute. At 77, Rollins is still the reigning god of the tenor saxophone, one of jazz's most innovative and influential pioneers.

And despite the inevitable declines of age (he moves with awkward stiffness now) and the weight of being the country's elder statesman of cool (check out those impenetrable shades), Rollins proved that he's still a volcano of fierce inventiveness and raw, urgent power.

From the first notes of "Sonny, Please," which opened the set, Rollins brought a restless edge to his playing, free-ranging his way through solos that erupted with ideas. He plays with a vast palette of sound, developing themes with expressive color as much as sheer power, and there's an urgent, almost primal quality to his playing that makes it riveting. And while Rollins has lost a few fans for his forays into Caribbean and pop-inflected music in recent years, there was nothing glib about the calypso-flavored "Nice Lady" that followed -- intensely personal, it swooped and probed and plunged across his entire range, like some wild bird suddenly uncaged.

Rollins displayed more sides of his playing throughout the evening, from the tender phrasing in Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" to the fierce unaccompanied cadenza in Noel Coward's "Someday I'll Find You," which brought down the house. "Global Warming" revealed an introspective side, and the evening closed with the electrifying "Why Was I Born."

While Rollins's five-piece band provided solid support, the wattage tended to dim whenever Rollins himself wasn't playing. Dampened by muddy amplification, guitarist Bobby Broom turned in agreeable but meandering solos for most of the night. Trombonist Clifton Anderson (Rollins's nephew) was the most consistently interesting player, developing minimal motifs into imaginatively worked-out solos that never failed to surprise, and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu, manning an array of African instruments, turned in a stunning solo on "Global Warming."

-- Stephen Brookes


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