Sentinel Contributing Writer
When you’re Sonny Rollins, you don’t have to talk much to the audience if you don’t want to. Â All you need to say to your devotees is “Welcome,” introduce your personnel and then at the end of your Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday night thank your admirers for coming and then you can talk’ with your tenor sax, playing invigoratingly glorious solos in your nearly all-white, wild natural and dark shades. You don’t even have to be in tip-top shape: You can hobble around the stage, bent over, not playing into the mike set up for you but looking at the audience in front of you almost as much as those behind you and mostly playing facing whichever reliable sideman is soloing at the time be it stalwart guitarist Russell Malone or bassist Bob Cranshaw, young but old-soul drummer Kobie Watkins or capable percussionist Victor Y. See Yuen.
In a brief set (85 minutes, six tunes, no encores), 79-year-old Sonny Rollins â€” he’ll be 80 this September â€” using both hands or just one, smoothly glided or ferociously bopped his way over a repertoire of original compositions and standards. Â His calypso-rhythmed composition, “St. Thomas,” which explores his Caribbean roots, featured fellow Trinidad and Tobago’s Yuen on a dynamic conga solo to Rollins’ animated, funky groove, which ended with “Shave and a Haircut.” Â But it was on “Someone to Watch Over Me” that listeners could perhaps envision a younger Rollins tenor playing his sexy sax in one of those smoke-filled nightclubs of the 50s, where his smooth sounds wafted out into the bebop streets of Harlem.
Rollins closed his performance with a ferocious, rather cacophonous, three-quarter-time waltz nothing that Mozart would recognize and then, despite thunderous encouragement from the crowd, denied an encore. Jazz aficionado Beverly Ware found that Rollins did his usually yeomanly lengthy solos but that he played a lot less forcefully and not as much or as long as past performances she’s seen, relying more on his sidemen, especially stalwart guitarist Russell Malone, who recently joined Rollins’ quintet. Â But as longtime fan William “Doc” Weathers, one of whose first vinyl records he ever bought was of Rollins playing with Miles Davis on “Paper Moon” around 1956, sees it, “As long as you continue to be an innovator, play several of your own compositions, even if you don’t play as much or as long as in past years and embellish those with tunes from the American songbook ,” the performance is bound to be outstanding.
Given a career that dates back to the 50s and was mentored by Thelonious Monk and includes stints with Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson and Bud Powell, it’s hard to believe that Rollins won his first Grammy just 10 years ago. Â But as one of the last among his peers and mentors still performing, Rollins represented them well, fulfilling his “holy obligation sometimes to evoke these people.”