Three days after his 80th birthday, Sonny Rollins performed perhaps his greatest and most memorable concert in years Friday night at New York's Beacon Theater. And from my vantage point, Sonny knew exactly how electrifying and successful he was. By evening's end, Sonny's grin traveled from ear to ear and he was clearly elated to hear the thunderous ovation, applause and shout-outs from the sold-out audience. [Photo of Sonny arriving at the Beacon Theater Friday afternoon by Bret Primack]
Sonny was joined on stage during the evening by his working band——guitarist Russell Malone, bassist Bob Cranshaw, drummer Kobie Watkins and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. There also were three announced guests and two who came as a big surprise to the audience. The three expected additions were trumpeter Roy Hargrove, guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Christian McBride. All three performed brilliantly, and given Sonny's sonic-boom energy level Friday night and drag-race execution, they had little choice.
Before the first of these guests came out, Sonny performed the strong, riffy Patanjali and Global Warming. With these two strenuous pieces, it became clear that Sonny was out to prove something and overcome his last Beacon appearance in 1995, which he told me he wasn't happy with.
Roy Hargrove was the first guest on stage, playing I Can't Get Started (with Sonny blowing obbligatos) and Raincheck. As Hargrove left, Jim Hall was next to appear with Sonny, performing In a Sentimental Mood and a perfect If Ever I Would Leave You.
Christian McBride followed Jim but was quickly joined by the first of two unannounced guests—drummer Roy Haynes. The quartet played In My Solitude. Then as the group launched into Sonnymoon for Two, Sonny told the audience that "someone wanted to come out with his horn to play Happy Birthday." After a bit of a delay, out walked Ornette Coleman [pictured] to a rolling gasp of surprise from the audience.
Dan Morgenstern, director of Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies, was seated next to me and said he could not recall a time when Sonny and Coleman were on the same stage together. The evening ended with an encore, featuring all of the musicians (except Coleman) playing a rousing St. Thomas.
The high point of the evening for me was If Ever I Would Leave You with Jim Hall. Sonny had just delivered two searing songs with his band and two competitive renditions with Hargrove. To watch Sonny ease off the throttle to match Jim's introspective approach was fascinating. Rather than bully Jim's delicate lines with his leonine style, Sonny kept inching back until the pair were both in the same space, with Sonny leading and Jim filling with his exciting chord voicings. Talk about jazz musicians listening to each other. The sensitivity was enormous. Personally, I would love to see these two record again, and I know Jim is open to it.
Sonny and Coleman playing together also was a thrill. Coleman sounded strong and spirited, launching into a series of free-jazz lines. Interestingly, Coleman found a free-jazz spot that wasn't too far out or provocative, and Sonny let go without dropping his melodic style. As a result, the saxophone giants competed in a mutually agreeable creative zone.
This concert was one for the books. When I spoke with Jim Hall yesterday, he said that he could sense the audience's excitement and the evening's drama when he came out on stage. "Sonny and I had a great time playing off each other on If Ever I Would Leave You," he said. "I think this concert showed that musicians have a particular commonality, and when it all comes together, the results can be pretty spectacular."
Despite having seen Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Sonny Stitt, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and so many others, I really couldn't think of another concert in my past that compared to the energy, jubilation and creative excitement of Friday night. Bravo, Sonny!
If you missed my article in the Wall Street Journal a week ago in which Sonny and I spent two hours in his old neighborhood in Harlem, go here.
More Sonny. Writer Greg Thomas conducted a smart interview with Sonny Rollins last week at The Root in which he stirred up Sonny's passion while retaining the sound of the saxophonist's voice. Go here.
Jerry Lee Lewis. If you're in the New York City on Monday, Jerry Lee Lewis will be performing at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill at 8 p.m. For more information, go here.
In 1957, when Jerry Lee first performed on the Steve Allen Show, the producers during rehearsal weren't sure Jerry Lee should kick back the piano chair during a live, on-air appearance. They were concerned that the piano player's rash action might send the chair into the set if kicked back too hard, making noise on live TV. But having someone stand there to stop the chair from going too far would tip the singer's hand, making the action seem staged rather than impromptu.
When I interviewed Jerry Lee in Mississippi for the Wall Street Journal last week, I asked him about his first TV appearance and how he managed to get the producers to allow him to let the chair fly:
Here's what Jerry Lee told me:
"During rehearsals, I kicked the chair back and the producers didn't know what to make of it for live TV. They were afraid it could hit into something. They also thought having someone standing there would seem dumb.
"Fortunately, Milton Berle was sitting in the first couple of rows. He loved what I did and knew it had to stay in the performance because it fit with what I was doing.
"He suggested that when I kicked the chair back, someone should be there to catch it but that the person should seem surprised and shove it back—but to the other camera across stage. This way, it would look like the person who caught the chair wasn't there to catch it and wasn't pleased that I had nearly hit him.
"So that's what we did on TV. That's why you see the chair fly across the stage soon after I kick it back."
Here's the clip. Watch for the chair...
Bill Evans. One of the last interviews Bill Evans gave before his death in 1980 was to Ross Porter of Jazz.FM91. The interview will air on Sunday at 4 p.m. (EDT). Go here to listen live.
Herb Snitzer. Photographer Herb Snitzer's exhibit Jazz Ambassadors will open October 8 and run until November 21 at the St. Petersburg (Florida) History Museum. His jazz images on exhibit span a 30-year period.
In addition to the exhibit, there will be a symposium featuring pianists Dick Hyman and Randy Weston; Dan Morgenstern of the Rutgers' Institute of Jazz Studies, and Buster Cooper (of the Duke Ellington Orchestra). Herb will discuss the days when the State Department sent jazz musicians on global tours as part of its foreign policy. [Photo of Dizzy Gillespie by Herb Snitzer]
David Amram. The Lake George (N.Y.) Jazz Weekend runs September 17-19 and will feature David Amram on piano, French horn and a range of other instruments. David turns 80 in November and the festival will celebrate the event a little early. For more information about the weekend and participating artists, go here.Oddball album of the week: Peter Ustinov was one of those individuals who excelled at everything he touched. A winner of two Oscars, Ustinov also was a film, theater and opera director as well as newspaper columnist, radio broadcaster and TV presenter. He also was a noted talk-show wit. All of these accomplishments notwithstanding, it's hard to figure out why he's in the engine of this sports car, why he's beckoning to what appears to be an Asian woman, or why any of it is funny. A different time, a different place.