Sonny Rollins leads divine jazz set at Touhill

By K. Curtis Lyle For The St. Louis American
Thursday, September 24, 2009

“If General George Armstrong Custer had been listening to Sonny Rollins when he went down at the Little Big Horn he would have died happy.”

That’s what I would have titled the first tune that the legendary saxophone colossus played at the Touhill Center for the Performing Arts last Saturday night. He took every element of jazz instrumental history and filtered it through an underlying Native American rhythm and then synthesized even that by turning the sound into a giant sly elf’s mode of Lester Young, Joe Houston, Big Jay McNeely war drums, marching bands, Mardi Gras funeral anguish changed to joy, and then he flew home – wherever that is!

Duke Ellington was famous for a lot of things, but one of his most interesting quirks was eating dessert before dinner. His great rationalizing line for this outrage against dining etiquette was, “It’s all going to the same place.” If we can imagine the evening as a sound picnic, Rollins made all the food, served all the dishes, lovingly dominated all the conversations and served dessert, the piece de resistance, first.

A dear friend, St. Louis trumpet legend Baikida Carroll, told of an afternoon he spent with Rollins in the 1980s. Sonny was scheduled to play at the Tanglewood, a New York musical institution of international renown. Since they were all there ahead of schedule, they decided to picnic on the grounds and relax before the concert.

Thinking that my friend had picked up some deep musical knowledge from a revered elder, I said, “So what did you talk about?” He said, “We talked about the food, man. We never talked about music. Everybody kept remarking on how bomb the food was. Now that I think back, it was some incredible stuff. It just got better and better. Each dish surpassed the one that came before.”

Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” was the dinner after the dessert. Just because Rollins had tilted the picnic didn’t mean that every dish wasn’t oh so good. This version of Duke’s classic was the equivalent of a sweet roast duck washed down with a bottle of black tequila then a brown bronzed worm hiding at the bottom. He ended the song in a four-minute cadenza with a quote from Coltrane’s famous Newport version of the ballad “I Want To Talk About You.”

The word “demonic” keeps coming back to me because of the energy express we rode that night. But then, I’m thinking, “This guy is 353 days from his 80th birthday.” There’s some kind of true alchemy present here.

The fourth tune of the evening had a Caribbean lilt that, of course, conjured memories of his great jazz calypso classic, St. Thomas. But, whereas St. Thomas evokes the carnival and an island saturnalia, Rollins moves quickly into the church yard right after the service and brings the band into the sanctuary.

I noticed Bobby Broom, the guitarist, get up off his chair and begin a soft shuffle and percussionist Sammy Figueroa drop his head into the sound of his own congas. Clifton Anderson, the trombonist and Sonny’s foil – also his nephew – once remembered in an interview a night when Rollins went somewhere the band couldn’t go. He simply left them all, in Anderson’s words, “like rubble on the stage.”

None of that kind of scorched earth action was evident. He seemed almost protective of the group as if they were the strong children he had chosen to eventually carry his torch. I have often thought of Ornette Coleman as the jazz master of the sense of the eternal childhood. Last Saturday night, Sonny Rollins seemed to negotiate the intimate corridors of a complete adult human being.

When a great musician plays something joyous or sad, you feel joy or sadness with him. When he began the next song, “My One and Only Love,” the first four lines rushed into my mind:

The very thought of you makes my heart sing
Like an April shower on the breath of spring
And you appear in all your splendor
My one and only love

He played the song inside out: meaning, he played it straight from the gorgeous melody for 32 bars, then let the band stretch it. He then returned to reharmonize it in a way that made the word “sophisticated” inadequate as an adjective. Only Art Tatum had the musical intelligence to do this to an American popular song. I was watching the band and they were watching him.

He ended with a rollicking in honor of Jimmy Forrest out of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson blues, in which his sinewy hoarse be bop voice took flight. Every jazzman has wanted to sing the blues since Louis Armstrong showed the world that bad was good, sly was hip and a syncopated soul was everything. Sonny’s longtime bass partner, Bob Cranshaw, and young drummer, Kobie Watkins, would certainly agree.

They (whoever they are) say that Rollins keeps the recordings of his greatest performances for himself and refuses to release them, many times substituting less accomplished studio fare. I don’t care. I got my passport and all my inoculations. I went to the country. I was there.

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