My seat at Tanglewood was in the first balcony way up behind the band. The people next to me were complaining how they wouldn’t be able to see Rollins. Even though I didn’t say anything, I knew that Rollins would play to the band as much as to the audience in front of him because that is what lead instrumentalists do and I cannot imagine that he was unaware of the fact that, in Ozawa Hall, he was essentially playing in the round. Rollins was in plain view the entire length of the concert.
Rollins is a master of what Gunther Schuller once dubbed "thematic improvisation." If you have never seen Rollins before, and if you have any awareness at all of how he is playing during the moments you are hearing him, then you can soak in the mastery and it will astonish you.
Rollins began the concert with material that would not only introduce his personality but also the rest of the band. Rollins stood back more than he played and let the guitars, trombone, drums and congas shape their own musicality. All of the members of the band were solid. Rollins favors bands that change in instrumentation except for the bass guitar, played by Bob Cranshaw, who has been with him for years
When Rollins plays, he takes over. The fluidity of his physical motion coincides with the fluidity of how he directs the music; the motion and the playing are indivisible. The core of this concert was "They Say that Falling in Love is Wonderful." The performance of this piece demonstrated Rollins at his best ... not one falter, not one uncertain move, flawless.
Rollins counted out the beat, and stated the melody. The trombone coincided with the sax. The entire group was set and going. Then Rollins began to drive his horn. Scale runs wrapped around scale runs; the notes came slowly, then quickly; he dove into deep tones and came out. Arpeggios abounded. The drums smacked behind him. The guitars were restrained yet responsible to the music. Rollins repeated phrase after phrase. He was always moving and when he switched dynamic on the horn, his motion would switch direction. The notes looped their way on and off the main line of the melody, which continually crept back in, in snippets, during the improvisation. Rollins did not pause. He hung on one note, repeating it four, five, six times and then swallowed his way into another burst of improvisation. He grabbed onto the tune once more and moved it into tonal depths, again and again and again, then, turned around and brought it up into higher register.
Listening was like being swept away in the current of the flow of a river. Any clutching of the notes, Rollins pushed into continuity, midst the manufacture of the sonoral effects of whistling and ringing. Still out of the melody and into the improvisation, it could be sensed that Rollins was moving to a conclusion. He produced one chorus after another, coming into the last phrases, his sax sang. The cadenza came through. Slow. Slow. Then, Rollins stopped. He had been playing continuously, endlessly. The band had supported his every move and exhibited its complete dedication to Rollins's purpose. Every member of the audience stood. The applause was uproarious. In a state of disbelief, I realized about midway through this piece that Rollins was not going to stop until he was ready. My realization made his performance that much more powerful and meaningful. He tells his musical story until it makes sense, perhaps emotional sense, to finish.
The remainder of the concert was balanced out with a fervent, rapturous explosion of "St. Thomas," whose Latin flare burst out of the band, the rapid fire of the congas emphasizing the highly rhythmic propulsion of the music, and then ... a piping down into ballads that gave rise to the lead guitar’s midrange, honey-dripped lines. The concert was full and rich and lacking for nothing.
I can understand why Rollins would leave performing with bands in clubs. I can understand that in order to keep himself alive musically he would go to a spot under the Williamsburg Bridge in NY at twilight and play all by himself for years until he was ready to jump back into the fray. As he was playing at this concert, I could see him vividly, alone, doing that.
And I cannot forget the little things that he does that matter, too. How Rollins faded into the back of the stage giving the front to the trombonist; how Rollins rocked his fist from the wrist to imitate the pulse when he was listening and not playing; how, when he chose to drop out for awhile, he kept himself in the swing by playing little parenthetical phrases next to the congas; how he played to the trombone and in another number to the guitar; how his fingers more often than not pressed the valve arms undetectably until he decided he would open his fingers up and out and straight as an arrow; how he wore his shades and you could not see his eyes; how he very seldom talks; how his beard was close-cropped and as white as snow. And how he answered the call for an encore with a hesitation to get back on the stage, but which I believe was simply an indication that he was exhausted. The band was on stage for close to two hours.
The cover article of Downbeat magazine for the month of September brought me to this concert. And so did something else. A long time ago, a friend and I were talking about the amazing number of high class musicians who come to our neck of the woods. And I happened to say that I was sorry that I had missed a recent appearance by Sonny Rollins in Northampton. Astonished, my friend replied: Get thee to a Sonny Rollins concert!
And I did get myself to one. And I will never forget it.
The members of this band are: Bobby Broom (guitar), Bob Cranshaw (bass guitar), Steve Jordan (drums), Clifton Anderson (trombone), Kimati Dinizulu (percussion) and Sonny Rollins (tenor)