Monday, November 26, 2007

Sonny Rollins at the Barbican, London, Saturday 24th November, 2007

The compere : 'Two Words: Sonny Rollins.' On came a frail, stooped man, seemingly bent under the weight of his tenor saxophone. But as soon as he started playing... you forgot the years and the weight and drag of straight time. Over the next two sets, Mr Rollins was to defy gravity and more than fulfil the expectations of the packed, sold-out house at the Barbican. He opened on a somewhat fragmented 'In a Sentimental Mood,' moving round the stage to cue his band as he did throughout with a jab or two of notes – the same scenario throughout where solos were prodded by a small interchange with the chosen musician until the leader would drop out and leave them to play. An odd lineup, but it worked – electric bass, electric guitar, drums and percussionist and trombone – all of whom took some solo space and acquitted themselves well, but looked to their main task - which was to provide the setting for their leader. Cranshaw took only one solo, a fleet scamper round his bass early on, Bobby Broom, albeit his sound seemed a bit muffled, a couple of hurtling, note tumbling efforts, linear and asymmetrically interesting with a bluesier edge creeping in during the calypso in the second set. On the first tune of the night, the percussionist Kimeti Dimizulu scattered chimes and shakers with a filigree shimmer that seemed at first to be out of place – but as the number slowly settled down and over the two sets, you saw how integral he was to Rollins' conception and he took a couple of neat solos. Jerome Jennings held it all together, brush work and stick as necessary, taking his own space in the spotlight late on in the second set, after a couple of briefer efforts where he traded with the leader, moving between quiet patter and louder hurtling rhythms over a classic bophihat ticking on two and four. Clifton Thornton gave solid support in the front line, themes and obbligatos, but also took a couple of rip-snorting solos that showed some fire and finesse. The material – standards, one from Duke (Sentimental), a couple of calypsos where the drum/percussion unit came into its own, a wry but heartfelt 'White Cliffs of Dover,' fragments of which Rollins wove into the last song – another rocking, rolling calypso.

And Sonny Rollins? His voice displayed his 77 years in his announcements, showing a fragile grace – but his tenor playing drew on wider and deeper powers. He was magnificent, still searching for new ways to twist a melody through a harmonic filter – and beyond. Defying the years, it was if he was channeling the whole freight of the traditions he came from – especially on the calypsos, with their cyclic, stripped down harmonies that seemed to offer him more space to blow like a demon, rough bluesy honks where he rode a single note like an r and b tenor shouter of old interlaced with long, breath-defying passages that veered suddenly into dense chromatic flurries that echoed the moves of free jazz. Playing from his position within the music, he veered across and beyond those established spaces, the occasional reed squeak adding to the intensity of the long searches through each song. No disrespect to his cohorts, but his playing was of another order. You were watching one of the great jazz musicians in action, offering no safety net but a performance dedicated to the difficult and demanding art of improvisation that he has followed so rigorously for so long. As he said at one point, 'Let's see if we can find something fresh in this,' referring to a song that he first recorded way back. He did...

At the end of the night, a long and passionate ovation finally drew him back briefly to wave a two-handed salute in acknowledgment before disappearing. The man had blown his heart and soul out for us – his wave was enough of an encore...

4 comments:

Mr Blister said...

Thank you for that excellent, eloquent review.
My favourite Sonny albums are the Live at the Village Vanguard pair. Going to dig them out now

Rod... said...

...synchronicity - just bought it on Amazon last night! - I have some of it on mp3 somewhere which I'd been planning to put up as it's a great couple of albums but fancied the whole set... thankx for kind comments... it was a special night...

Happy In Bag said...

What Mr. Blister said. Thanks for the report.

Rod... said...

... thank you...