Jazzman Sonny Rollins is a hit at the Touhill

By Calvin Wilson
September 21, 2009

Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins has a reputation for performances of transcendent artistry, and he lived up to it Saturday evening at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. Leading a sextet through a program that included jazz standards and original tunes, Rollins kept an audience of more than 1,500 spellbound. The concert was presented by Jazz St. Louis.

The 90-minute set had a headlong energy that barely allowed the crowd to catch its breath. Accompanied by trombonist Clifton Anderson, guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, percussionist Sammy Figueroa and drummer Kobie Watkins, the saxophonist memorably evoked the spirit of jazz.

Throughout the evening, Rollins and his band kept things tight and focused. That was certainly true of their upbeat, bouncy rendition of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful.” Adventurous soloing from trombonist Anderson and guitarist Broom set the stage for a fiery sax-percussion interchange, with Rollins and Figueroa completing each other’s musical sentences.

On Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” Rollins assumed the role of balladeer without resorting to schmaltz. Like the great Kansas City saxophonist Ben Webster, Rollins can get more jazz feeling into a few notes than lesser artists can achieve with torrents of sound.

At 79, Rollins — one of the pioneers of bebop and a contemporary of such legends as trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Max Roach — is as energetic and imaginative as ever, incorporating funk and rock influences into his music. That’s to be expected: Rollins contributed scintillating solos to the Rolling Stones’ “Tattoo You” album. So it wasn’t surprising that the original tunes came across as fresh and engaging, without a hint of the mustiness that often mars jazz performances.

Also to be expected, Rollins included a calypso number — a setting in which the exuberance of his sound can perhaps be heard in its purest form. The band got so deep into a Caribbean groove that you could almost feel a breeze wafting through the Touhill.

The concert ended with a song in the classic R&B tradition, featuring an enthusiastic Rollins on vocals.

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