Joe Alexander considers the return of a prime contender for the mantle of greatest living jazzman, saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
There cannot be too many events in the generally reﬁned world of the arts in which eager punters are reduced to ﬂsticuffs in the queue for a handful of standing-room only tickets, but that is precisely what happened last time saxophone giant Sonny Rollins came to play in Scotland.
That occasion was a TDK Round Midnight Festival gig during the 1989 Edinburgh Festival, in the intimate surroundings of the Queen’s Hall, when a lot of disappointed people were turned away. Those inside, though, experienced a memorable night, as much for the palpable sense of occasion as for the music itself. The chance to see a player of Rollins’s stature in a hall of this size is rare indeed, and the closeness of contact swept away memories of his disappointing Usher Hall concert the previous year.
That intimacy will not be part of his concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall but at least everybody who wants to hear him should be able to get in. Rollins provides the final ﬂourish to the Famous Grouse Jazz Season, in what may well be his ﬁrst ever visit to Glasgow — those with longer memories than mine have been unable to recall a previous one.
The Rollins of recent records has been a little disappointing, perhaps, but the player we heard at ‘ the Queen’s Hall was in vintage fettle, spinning ' out chorus after chorus of phenomenally inventive improvisation around familiar themes, twisting and turning the melody lines in all directions, but never straying far from the song itself. Old-fashioned, perhaps, but overwhelming in its power and sense of structure.
With the deaths of Miles Davis and Stan Getz last year, Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie are now the most famous survivors of the generation of musicians which carved out a new post-war, post-Swing jazz style. If Rollins made his initial mark in the revolutionary harmonic innovations of bebop, he came into his own as the music modulated into the less-ﬂuid hard bop register.
His ability to weave and sustain lengthy improvisations is reﬂected in a series of classic recordings for the major labels of the 505, including Blue Note (check the memorable A NightAt The Village Vanguard trio sessions, or Newk’s Time), Prestige (the mighty Saxophone Colossus, or the head-to-head with John Coltrane on Tenor Madness), Contemporary (Way Out West) and Riverside (Freedom Suite).
They established the saxophonist as a hugely inﬂuential stylist, while many of his tunes have
entered the standard modern jazz repertoire. He
plays wrth atone which is forceful to the point of raucous, but is equally capable of soothing sweetness, and has a peerless ﬂair for transforming his often simple themes with an apparently limitless fund of invention, and a predestined sense of where he is going and how to get there, heard to maximum effect on The Solo Album.
‘I’m not a musician that can go to a job and do the same routine every night,’ Rollins argues. ‘Even though I might play a repertoire of certain songs, each of them is going to be played differently each time. In fact, I believe they are re-composed each time. It’s one thing to play with arranged band licks, but that’s not where I’m coming from. I’m coming from straight improvisation, extemporaneous creativity, all of those things happening right on the spot.’
Apart from his celebrated calypso-derived tunes like ‘St Thomas’, ‘Don’t Stop The Carnival’, and the more recent ‘Duke OfIIron’. he has long
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Sonny Rollins: still a saxophone colossus?
featured unlikely items like ‘There’s No Business Like Showbusiness’, ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’, ‘Toot, Toot, Tootsie’, or ‘Surrey With The Fringe On Top’. The saxophonist claims he can transform them in wholly surprising ways ‘precisely because I’m not trying to parody them in any way. It begins with an appreciation and a love of the tunes for what they are, and then I bring my own interpretation to them.’
His band will include a new drummer, Yoron Israel, alongside more familiar names like trombonist Clifton Anderson, pianist Mark Soskin, and bassman Bob Cranshaw, with Jerry Harris on guitar. They will be hard-pushed to recapture the thrill of that last visit, but if they even get close, it will be another night to remember.
Sonny Rollins plays the Glasgow International Concert Hall on Tue 21 Apr.
The List 10— 23 April 1992 27