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Review: Sonny Rollins repeatedly brought Touhill crowd to its feet

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2009 - More than half a century of jazz history was on vivid display Saturday (Sept 19) as tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and his superb quintet played almost two hours of hard bop, calypso, blues and ballads for an adoring crowd of well more than 1,000. The rousing concert also benefited from the excellent acoustics of the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Rollins played six full-length pieces and closed by briefly growling a blues, "It's a Low Down Dirty Shame," but in his solos he touched on dozens of other songs, from nursery-rhyme ditties to Broadway show tunes. His playing ranged from feverish to soulful. As usual, his fertile imagination made striking connections between snippets of song, but there was never any sense that he was substituting memory for inspiration. Few musicians are Rollins' equal in taking us from places we know to strange new lands.

Sonny Rollins, who is surely the greatest living jazz saxophonist, forged his room-filling, dense sound in the so-called hard bop era of the 1950s, and he is the last of the great soloists who played with the giants of the period. Rollins first came to prominence in recordings with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. He was also influenced by John Coltrane, but Rollins' hard-edged, insistent, room-filling saxophone sound is unmistakable, even when he is playing the tenderest of ballads.

Saturday night, on Duke Ellington's bluesy "In A Sentimental Mood," Rollins played a lyrical duet with trombonist Clifton Anderson and then took a chillingly beautiful solo. The solo ended with a remarkable extended cadenza that rolled up and down the scale, pausing to touch base on several other popular songs, before ending with an extended wail that brought the audience to its feet for one of several standing ovations.

Rollins also played a fleet, almost gleeful version of "They Say It's Wonderful," which briefly morphed into "Time after Time" (the 1947 standard, not the Cyndi Lauper song). Bobby Broom evoked the great Charlie Christian in a crisply swinging solo on his amplified acoustic-style guitar.

Rollins was mellow and mournful on "My One and Only Love," one of his favorite songs. Bassist Bob Cranshaw, who has been with Rollins off and on since the saxophonist returned to public performances in 1961 after a two-year sabbatical, added to the lyrical mood with a slow and loving solo. Cranshaw plays the electric bass, but he somehow achieves a depth of sound and an organic resonance that suggest the unamplified upright bass.

Rollins just turned 79, and his sound may not be quite as powerful as it was half a century ago when an album of his could be justly entitled "Saxophone Colossus," but he still is filled with energy and can throw out long ropes of sound as he restlessly moves around the stage.

Perhaps the highpoint of the evening came with his lively composition "Don't Stop the Carnival," with both percussionists - drummer Kobie Watkins and conga drummer Sammy Figueroa - laying down a strong but nimble calypso beat and the solo instruments feeding off the polyrhythms. Rollins, who loves the music of the Caribbean, roamed slowly around the stage, a long orange shirt strikingly setting off his white hair and beard, encouraging the members of his band to work with the beat. The song ended with another Rollins cadenza and another standing ovation.

At the end of the concert, after paying tribute to St. Louis-area musicians like Davis and saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, Rollins shouted out his farewell to the cheering crowd: "Catch us the next time around. We're going to keep doing it."

Harper Barnes is a freelance writer who has covered jazz over several decades.