Hill Auditorium was filled Saturday evening as the University Musical Society opened its 12th Annual Jazz Series with An Evening with Sonny Rollins. The performance was presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The diversity of Saturday’s audience demonstrated the appeal and scope of Mr. Rollins’s work. When the 75-year-old legend entered, the crowd stood, filling Hill auditorium with enthusiastic applause. Rollins sauntered onstage after his bandmates and though his back was bent low, his tenor sax was still firmly strapped about his neck.
Theodore Walter “Sonny” Rollins was born on Sept. 7, 1930. He began playing piano at age 9 and alto sax at 14 before settling on tenor. Before he was 20, Rollins had already performed with jazz greats like Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. Rollins’s career took off in the 1950s with albums like Tenor Madness, a collaboration between Rollins and John Coltrane and Saxophone Colossus, an album so influential to jazz that it earned Rollins the epithet “Colossus.”
Rollins opened the show with a captivating uptempo tune, energizing the audience with his wide and vibrant range. Rollins’s nephew, Clifton Anderson, played an animated solo with remarkable lucidity. Drummer Al Foster rapped, tapped and rolled through a pulsating solo of rhythmic patterns, never missing a beat.
Next was Billy Eckstein’s “I Wanna Talk About You,” a smooth, warm ballad featuring a solo by guitarist Bobby Broom. Rollins reentered toward the end of the tune with a peculiar form of “trading fours” (trading four measures back and forth) with the drums. While Rollins played in brief melodious whispers, Foster played intensely and quietly. Rollins gave a roaring, glorious finish, asserting his rightful title as the Saxophone Colossus.
Rollins’s set also included a light, playful song with a Latin groove. Rollins’ demonstrated his ability to make a solo humorous and fun by quoting children’s rhymes. His exceptionally wide range on the sax was prevalent as he alternated between low and high registers.
After a standing ovation, Rollins and his group played two encore tunes. One had a similar feel to an earlier calypso piece. The chart’s high energy and rhythm had the audience swaying in its seats. In a grand cadenza at the end of the last encore, Rollins included a melody from the Christmas carol “Up on the Housetop.”
The presence of a jazz deity like Sonny Rollins is bittersweet; it calls to mind those who have come before him: Coltrane, Monk and others. Jazz permeates an emotional barrier that much of today’s overproduced pop music just can’t reach. As the connections to this golden era fade away, jazz should not be looked upon as retro. The soulful values found on vinyl should be maintained.