On November 29, 1957, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins played at Carnegie Hall for the first time leading his own group–a trio consisting of ex-Duke Ellington bassist Wendall Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis. Although he was only 27 at the time, Rollins had already played and/or recorded with such leading lights of modern jazz as Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Babs Gonzales, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis. In 1957, on the day after Thanksgiving, Rollins was the opening act on a bill that featured Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker with Zoot Sims and Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane.
On September 18, 2007, Rollins, now a legend, commemorated the 50th anniversary of that gig with a return to the Hall. He recreated his trio setting with current bass star Christian McBride and a guy who played drums with Rollins 50 years ago–Roy Haynes (who’s gotta be about 80 or so now, though he didn’t look it and certainly didn’t sound like it).
In 1957, Rollins’ performance was a short, three-song segment of a longer all-star jazz show and he only played three songs: the original “Sonnymoon for Two,” “Some Enchanted Evening” (from the Broadway musical South Pacific) and the Kurt Weill composition “Moritat” (which would become a pop hit as “Mack the Knife” by Bobby Darin two years later). At the show last night, Sonny stretched the songs out to about ten minutes each, with McBride and Haynes providing excellent accompaniment. It was truly sublime. Especially within the first two minutes of the first song when Rollins showed off his circular breathing technique. This was Rollins’ night and he wasn’t going to fool around.
After a half hour break, Rollins came back to play with a sextet that included his bass player since 1962 Bob Cranshaw; guitarist Bobby Broom, conga and African percussionist Kimati Dinizulu; Steve Jordan, a drummer I initially had misgivings about as he is known for playing in mostly rock settings; and joining Rollins on the front line was trombone player Clifton Anderson–Rollin’s nephew.
This group performed three funkified grooves that hinted at Rollins’ Caribbean roots (his “St. Thomas” is a calypso-influenced classic that he’s been playing since 1956). Jordan’s drumming stood out, as it drove the band without becoming showy or in the way. Anderson may have got the job due to his family ties, but he kept it because he can play trombone quite well. Broom, the guitarist, seemed to mostly play solos. It surprised me that he rarely played rhythm parts, especially during the more funky passages.
For the most part, the whole thing was kept together by the bass player, Cranshaw, who most definitely knows a good groove when he plays one. Dinizulu’s percussion work was a lovely spice.
Throughout this segment of the show, Rollins, who was dressed in a satin-like, over-sized white long-sleeve shirt that matched his hair and beard, played in the hard, rhythmic manner for which he is known. Although purists may have enjoyed the first set better, the second set most definitely had its moments–every time Sonny Rollins played his tenor saxophone. He was clearly enjoying himself, swinging the saxophone around his neck as he played and moving up, down and around the stage, employing a cordless microphone attached to his horn.
Rollins and his group ended the show with a jazzed-up version of the soca standard “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” which allowed for each member of the group to solo.
A contemporary of John Coltrane, Rollins is truly a legend. For the first twenty years of his career he was considered Coltrane’s chief rival of post-bop, hard-driving tenor saxophone playing–some say Rollins was better. When Trane died in 1967, Rollins was the undisputed boss. Lucky for us, Rollins is still alive and playing fabulous music.