Sonny Rollins – Melbourne International Jazz Festival, The Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne (06/06/2011)

It is not going to be possible to construct a review of tonight’s show at The Melbourne Town Hall without gushing, and so I only hope that by the end of this article you will understand the reasons why. Someone who works as a music critic spends many nights a week out, listening to music of all styles in stadiums, theatres, pubs, bars, etc., watching groups both sublime and horrendous; however tonight’s performance was nothing short of incredible, and was certainly one of the most enjoyable this reviewer has seen in living memory – you were warned.

In his eightieth year on the planet, appearing as headline act of the Melbourne Jazz Festival was none other than ‘The Saxophone Colossus’, Sonny Rollins. Since his initial recordings in 1949 (which have been credited as being the first examples of Hard Bop), to his key collaborations with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk, Rollins has been responsible for changing not only the way that the tenor saxophone is approached, but jazz music itself.

Resplendent in a large red shirt and dark sunglasses, Sonny Rollins shuffled onstage resembling an old owl; his posture bent, presumably from years of dedicated saxophone- posture. Tonight he was accompanied by a very able quintet of guitarist Peter Bernstein, Bob Cranshaw on electric bass, drummer Kobie Watkins and Sammy Figueroa on percussion. Having first pioneered the sax and rhythm section format in 1957, prior to which piano had always been a key accompaniment, tonight’s addition of percussion helped to add a latin flavour to the proceedings, the interplay between Figueroa and Watkins being a key a ingredient to the sound.

Although obviously far from a virile man, as soon as the playing began, with “Newark News”, Rollins, as well as the rest of his group, became energised; a wireless microphone clipped to his instrument allowing him to move around the stage, ducking and strutting to throw the groove. The band, when their brows weren’t furrowed with concentration, were constantly smiling, obviously enjoying the moment. During the many generous solos that Rollins gave to the instrumentalists he stood to the side nodding in agreement, his mouth visibly scatting along over the rhythm. It was evident from the get-go that those gathered onstage live, breath and love jazz music, as there is really no way to fake the kind of genuine emotion and joy that was displayed through each of their playing for the hour long set.

The quintet skipped through pieces from throughout Rollins’ career, moving through influences of calypso, bop, and classic jazz, using an exciting combination of tempos, with song structures being used mostly as a template for their fast paced improvisation. Whilst the set was definitely eclectic, everything sat together perfectly; the patter of the hand drums filling in the spaces, always complimenting the drum kit, whilst Cranshaw’s bass remained a constant middle point around which the chaos evolved. Bernstein traded lines with Rollins, their instruments engaged in a conversation so beautiful that it didn’t matter if the listener didn’t speak the language, the guitarist’s virtuosic jazz style providing a counterpoint to the older man’s sharp bursts, and simultaneously sweet and chaotic soloing.

Although highlights are hard to pinpoint, it was thirty-six year old Watkins who provided perhaps the most hair raising moment of the night. During a drum solo that lasted for a good seven minutes, Watkins proved himself to be one of the best jazz drummers in the world today- on more than one occasion my jaw literally dropped in amazement.

Before leaving the stage Rollins shuffled to the microphone to inform us of his golden rule “do unto others as you want them to do to you”; quite fitting for a musician who became popular during times of segregation, the same man who wrote “The Freedom Suite”. The band then launched into their final number, “Don’t Stop the Carnival”, during which the eighty year old came alive with even more energy than had hitherto been displayed. He was positively dancing around the stage, leaning down to stare at the front row while he delivered guttural low notes, before craning back in exclamation on the higher notes, seemingly pulling an incredible variety of notes out of thin air.

This performance was an experience that will surely not be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have witnessed one of the greats of 20th century music, live at The Melbourne Town Hall.

Originally published on The AU Review on 08/06/2011. View original article.

Photograph by Mark Peterson. View photo gallery.

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