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Sonny Rollins at the Kennedy Center

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Saxophone Colossus, S. Rollins,
T. Flanagan, D. Watkins, M. Roach

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Tenor Madness, S. Rollins, R. Garland, P. Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, J. Coltrane

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A Night at the Village Vanguard,
S. Rollins, W. Ware, E. Jones

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The Bridge, S. Rollins, J. Hall,
B. Cranshaw, B. Riley
Sonny Rollins is one of the last surviving jazz legends, a status made official when President Obama gave him the National Medal of Arts this spring at the White House -- and about to be reinforced this December when the American saxophonist receives the Kennedy Center Honors. He has been coming to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with some regularity in the last few years, sponsored by Washington Performing Arts Society, and he had his latest such appearance on Monday night, still a force in his 80s. (You can watch him speak about his ongoing career with Tavis Smiley on PBS.) Rollins had some difficulty walking around the stage, and the bulk of the solos in the 70-minute set went to the talented members of his band, especially Peter Bernstein on electric guitar and Kobie Watkins on drums, with some highlights from bassist Bob Cranshaw (who has been playing with Rollins for most of his career) and Sammy Figueroa on congas.

Some clunky rhythms aside, Rollins still has a broad, buzzing tone and a laid-back improvisational style that mixes silence with pert motifs. Gunther Schuller once wrote about the way Rollins improvised, saying that his most important innovation was a more studied thematic and structural unity. Rollins is still doing this, developing the motifs of a tune as the bones of his improvisation, as he did with the main motivic cell of Patanjali, for example, the perky staccato pattern popping up again and again. The tone ranged from ultra-smooth, in the third number, the smoky ballad Once in a While, rendered with torch-song vitality as Rollins serenaded listeners in the front row, to human voice-like guttural growls, in the opening number, New Song (an "unnamed" new piece).

Through his many stylistic shifts over the years, Rollins has returned again and again to his Caribbean heritage: although he grew up in New York, his parents were from the U.S. Virgin Islands. Calypso-style rhythms, with Figueroa's congas in the spotlight, permeated the opening number, returning later in the set in the sixth number, Nice Lady, featuring a minimalistic improvisation by Rollins with lots of filler by drums and congas. Rollins had a dynamic back-and-forth with Watkins in the fourth number, Serenade, a triple-meter lark, followed by Watkins taking his most extended solo.

Rollins said very little during the concert, not announcing anything on the playlist and limiting his comments to just two points in the evening, but what he did say was memorable. He introduced his fellow musicians, saying several times, to the delight of the audience, that "these musicians are not dope addicts," and Rollins's own trials with drug use, from which he recovered, hovered in the background of those comments. He also spoke, quite movingly, about how he travels everywhere in the world, and no matter where he goes people love jazz, that the music represents the United States abroad -- and it does so very well indeed. Of a planned trip to play in Turkey, he said that some people were surprised that Muslims would like jazz, but he joked that Muslims who were listening to him play jazz were also not going to attack Americans. Those hoping to hear some of the Rollins greatest hits had to content themselves with Tenor Madness -- one of my favorites, embedded below in the famous recording with John Coltrane -- and the final number, Don't Stop the Carnival. Before he opened that last piece, Rollins assured the crowd of his love for them, adding "I'll see you again, sometime, somewhere, so don't worry about that." We plan to hold him to his word.

Mark Jenkins, In concert: Sonny Rollins at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, October 11)

Chris Barton, Jazz review: Sonny Rollins at Royce Hall (Los Angeles Times, September 23)

Tenor Madness, S. Rollins, J. Coltrane

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