Back in January New Zealand Jazz lovers had been delighted to learn that Sonny Rollins would be in Wellington. This band was the sole International act performing in the (temporarily truncated) Wellington Jazz Festival. Sonny’s band is comprised of Bob Cranshaw (eb), Kobe Watkins (d) Sammy Figueroa (perc) Peter Bernstein (g). As there are very few of the great 50’s tenor players remaining among us, my friends and I knew that we had to fly to Wellington to catch the act and had booked early. It is lucky we did because the seats for the city’s Michael Fowler Center sold out quickly. In an already busy Jazz year, the Sonny Rollins concert was a headline event in the New Zealand Jazz Calendar and as Sonny had turned 80 recently this was not an opportunity to be squandered.
When the band came on stage there was an initial cheer and then a slight hush as Sonny emerged – bent over and shuffling painfully. We collectively held our breath as he shuffled to the microphone and uttered a few words. Then a deafening roar of approval went up as the 80 year old put the golden saxophone to his lips. It was as if a miracle had occurred because he appeared to grow in stature and from the very first note he was rejuvenated. He played with a force and virility that would have been surprising in a 20 year old let alone an 80 year old. This was the Sonny of old. The Saxophone Colossus of Brooklyn Bridge fame was again defying the gods of music; mocking them for trying silence him with age.
The band launched straight into the first number ‘D.Cherry’ which was hard driving and heavily accented by the powerful rhythm section. Allowing only a 10 second break for the applause they ripped into the second number and apart from a short introduction well into the concert there were few song announcements (nor an intermission). This was the Sonny Rollins who had earned immeasurable respect over a lifetime of performance; powerfully taking the music to the edge of the possible. Perhaps not always a pretty sound but absolutely typical of his vigorous, relentless improvising. Sonny goes straight to the heart of a tune and then mines it for every ounce of meaning as he tells his story. I recall a friend saying that his playing is like a dog gnawing on a bone until every morsel is gone.
The band had quickly hit their stride and were soon playing in lockstep. What could not be denied though was that Sonny was more than the sum of the bands parts. The versatile Bob Cranshaw is a well known bass player and he lived up to expectations. The other musician I knew and rated was guitarist Peter Bernstein. Peter has recorded as a leader a number of times and he is a regular fixture around the New York scene – especially with organ/guitar/drum trio’s in Manhattan clubs like ‘Smoke‘. I would have liked Peter brought further forward in the mix, as his driving powerful lines are well worth hearing, but competing against the powerful drummer and the well miked-up percussionist was left to Sonny. His powerhouse tenor sound rode over the top of the two with apparent ease. The standout number for me was the ‘Annie get your gun’ (Irving Berlin) show tune ‘They say its wonderful’; which was…. wonderful. Tiring after two energised hours; Sonny said goodnight and launched into ‘Don’t stop the carnival’, which sometimes quoted from his legendary calypso ‘St Thomas’. The set list from the two hours plus concert was as follows: D. Cherry, Patanjali, Blue Gardenia, Serenade, Newark News, They Say It’s Wonderful, Tenor Madness and Don’t Stop the Carnival.
Sour note: As grateful as I was to Wellington for hosting Sonny, I am still annoyed at the funders for canceling the fuller Wellington International Jazz Festival this year. I hope they realise how wonderful the last one was and never make that mistake again. Rugby should never be allowed to negate such an important music festival – sport and music can co-exist if allowed to.