Friday, May 16, 2008


Live: Sonny Rollins
Osaka Festival Hall

Tonight my friend Andy and I attended a concert by tenor sax legend. Sonny Rollins. Sonny has enjoyed a long, prolific career and is now, aged 77, truly one of the grand old men of jazz.

As Andy and I approached Festival Hall we were excited at the prospect of seeing this jazz titan in the flesh.

If anyone represents the mainstream tenor saxophone tradition, it’s Rollins. He’s the archetypal post-bop improviser with an inventive, resonant sound which has never gone out of favor.

Sonny’s resume reads like a who’s who of jazz. When you consider he has played and recorded with luminaries such as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Max Roach, and Art Blakey, you realize that tonight you are in the presence of jazz royalty.

Tonight Sonny is appearing with his longtime band featuring his trombonist nephew Clifford Anderson, drummer Steve Jordan, percussionist Kimati Dinizuli, guitarist Bobby Broom and bassist Bob Cranshaw.

The opening number Sonny, Please has a loose Miles Davis Bitches Brew feel, with Bobby Broom contributing some tasty McLaughlinesque touches and Bob Cranshaw holding down a simple but effective bass line. It’s hypnotic fusion vibe is right up my alley and I wonder if we are going to be treated to more of the same.

Actually, no. It soon becomes apparent we’re in for an evening of straight-ahead jazz as the band trot out a succession of crowd-pleasing standards: They Say it’s Wonderful, In a Sentimental Mood, Someday I’ll Find You, Nice Lady.

Sonny prowls the stage like an amiable bear and occasionally stands sideways to the audience, holding his sax at arms length as if urging his band to join him on a journey of musical exploration.

But they never really take off. The band is, as you’d expect, highly accomplished, but the smorgasbord of overly polite post-bebop mixed with calypso-inflected rhythms feels a bit safe.

To make matters worse, the dourly cavernous Festival Hall hardly lends itself an intimate, jazzy ambiance. The overall feel is of a recital rather than a gig.

There are some highlights, though. Playing tenor sax requires great physical exertion, and at 77, Sonny rips off several of the fleet, expressive solos which are his trademark. The band are tight and tasteful, fashioning a nicely deconstructed version of Serenade which features some exquisite guitar/bass interplay.

Sonny’s best-known composition St. Thomas, elevated into a jazz standard on his classic Saxophone Colossus album, is predictably hauled out as the final number and the crowd equally predictably goes bananas as its famous signature melody echoes through the rafters.

When Sonny steps out for his encore, for one delicious moment Andy and I think he’s going to treat us to a solo piece. Alas it’s not to be and the band join him for a spirited version of Why Was I Born?

There aren’t many be-bopping septuagenarians - Ornette excepted - who can hold a crowd’s attention like Sonny, and the Japanese audience gives him a rapturous send-off, showing a deep affection for Sonny the man and the musician.

Maybe they were thinking the same as us - that this jazzy genius, who has made a vast contribution to America's greatest art form, may not be around much longer, so let's enjoy him and pay tribute while we can. We saw the legend, and for that we’re all grateful and appreciative.

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