Sonny Rollins, Symphony Hall, April 6, 2007
Sonny Rollins has said that when he plays long solos, it isn’t necessarily because he’s inspired but because he’s looking for inspiration. Which means his shows can often be frustrating, as Sonny digs himself into a tune that he can’t get out of, willing Divine Intervention.
Rollins’s performance with his sextet at Symphony Hall last Friday was as flawed as any Rollins performance I’ve seen, and also one of the greatest. Symphony Hall is unforgiving of amplified sound: there’s no decay. As Sonny — now 76, resplendent in an all-black outfit with a red pocket handkerchief, white hair swept back, white beard, shades — stalked the stage, blowing, I had to lean in to hear individual notes amid the energetic torrent. The first tune, an up-tempo Hammerstein/Kern “Why Was I Born?”, lasted 35 minutes. Sonny’s lower register rumbled and shook, his upper-register note clusters sailed like a frisbee and disappeared into the hall. Bobby Broom’s Wes Montgomery–style guitar burbled with gasoline-on-water rainbows. During the second tune, “In a Sentimental Mood,” Bob Cranshaw’s electric-bass solo was interminable. It seemed at first that only trombonist Clifton Anderson — usually bland — was able to seize the sound of the hall, playing with muscle and definition.
But Broom and Sonny adjusted, playing longer note values, Sonny occasionally rending the fabric of a tune with half- or whole-note passages that emerged from the chromatic æther, Heaven-sent. He wandered off the melody at odd places, commented on other players’ solos with interjections and asides, sampled bits of other tunes that were here and gone in the midst of his solos before you could name them. After the 90-minute first set, the second was like one long encore — the cool, bruising, funky vamp of “Sonny, Please” (the title track of his new CD) taking up most of it. Sonny kept digging — in a show where he came up with gold.
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