Barbican, London, November 16 2012
Screw genres, a legend is a legend. My own personal campaign for more jazz on here notwithstanding, there are very few recording artists who command the same respect as Sonny Rollins. And at 82, I should bloody well think so too. With the exception of Wayne Shorter and Yusef Lateef (the latter of whom is 92 and largely retired from public performance) he remains possibly the ONLY great tenorman left from the pre-freeform era (please get in touch if you can think of any others). With only Phil Woods and Lee Konitz remaining on alto, and Charlie Davis on baritone: whispers have also been going round about this being his last ever London or UK show, so the incentive was upon me to get down there. I had to view the first 40 minutes or so in the hall on the screen until I was gifted a ticket, mind you- during which time I witnessed possibly the most sublime 20 minute take on Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn's "It's You Or No One" I've heard since Monroe sang it in Some Like It Hot- but it sure was blummin' 'ell worth it, guvnor.
At least I think that's what he was playing - you never really can tell with a bebopper, especially one who's lived through the freedom revolution and come out the other side, and, as the bloke from the Fast Show said, (come on, it had to be crowbarred in somewhere) "Tune? This is jaaaaazzzz!". But that would actually be a little unfair, as Sonny is still very bit the lyrical, songbird-like architect of sound he was as far back as Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West, with sly little smears referencing tunes from both creeping in and out as the night goes on. Backed by guitar, double bass (a flawless Bob Cranshaw), trombone, drums and congas, with fascinating exploratory interplay woven in and around him by the players of each, and with his lurching, twisting stage-walking manner providing the necessary theatrics (to say nothing of his red silk blouse and his billowing, rug-like flame of white hair- can this really be the same man that once inspired me to sport a mohican?) he defines the word 'charisma'.
In musical terms, his journey now appears in his latter years to have arrived at a place where all his previous incarnations, as hard-bopper, avant-gardist, R'n'B man, fusioneer and that 'uncredited' sabbatical with the Rolling Stones at the behest of Charlie Watts have all come to rest and enjoy each other's company. He takes you on that journey again several times throughout the evening, from the booming tone of his early Coleman Hawkins-inflected work to his latter-day appreciation of Coltrane, Shepp and Sanders, forays into funk hawking, and back- with the ever-present spirit of calypso, his very own Proustian Madeleine cake, at both ends. Starting with 'St Thomas' and ending with 'Don't Stop The Carnival' was more than just a case of a well-structured set list: from the Caribbean folksongs sung to him by his mother at an early age, all the way to Birdland, Newport and the Williamsburg Bridge via Riker's Island and back again, Mr Theodore Walter Rollins has sure been around, and he wants to show you the map. Perhaps that's why his sax still coils and unwinds in a serpentine fashion. He's also still as passionate about jazz as he was in the mid 40s when a Sinatra concert changed his life, and he still wants to change yours. I think he managed it several times over tonight alone...
You can't escape the truth of mortality though, and his hunched, arthritic posture (particularly evident for one who once stood so erect) is a consistent reminder of just how long ago this all started, and sadly how soon it could all be over. There are times when the horn slips out of his mouth, although he makes light of it ("wait!! stop now!! Woh, woh, where you goin? Come BACK here!!") his humour again reminding us why he is so respected, before quickly moving on to another burst of tenor magic. If there's one complaint, it has to be that often, just when things look set to explode fully into the realms of beautiful warm noise, he fights shy by returning time and again to the melody at the end of each phrase: maybe this again reflects that we are witnessing an older, mellower Sonny, maybe he just doesn't play like that anymore. Or maybe it's because he's Sonny Rollins, he can do whatever he wants, and although he thanks us all sincerely for coming, he's long past the point where he has to pander to ANY of our expectations.
As he descends those stairs to the backstage (there is no encore) by a respectable 9.45pm, a tinge of poignancy can't be avoided at the thought that he may never pass our way again, and this may be the last time he takes that walk: not because he's in any more immediate danger of passing than any other octaganerian, but because finally, after the upcoming European dates, the man they once called 'Newk' is finally taking the rest he deserves. Happy retirement.
Darius Drewe Shimon
Darius Drewe Shimon