(Barbican, 16th November 2012. LJF. Review by Tom Gray. Video from 2012 Umbria Jazz)
“It’s great to be back in London”, declared Sonny Rollins as he ambled off the stage at the end of a colossal near-two-hour set. As with his playing, there was absolutely nothing throwaway about this parting comment. After all, Rollins’s affiliation with the capital goes back decades, from the nights he spent holed up in Ronnie’s working on the film score for ‘Alfie’ , right through to the twilight years of his career, where he can sell out one of the city’s largest concert halls many months in advance to an audience that goes from seated to full standing ovation in under five seconds.
The audience’s devotion was repaid right from the start, as the octogenarian launched into his set with the irresistibly swung calypso of his greatest hit, ‘St Thomas’. This set the tone for the evening, with Rollins’s band — including drummer Kobie Williams, trombonist Clifton Anderson and long-time associate Bob Cranshaw on bass — laying down robust, unpretentious support. In any other context, the orthodoxy of this band might have made the evening drag, but it turned out to be a suitable anchor for Rollins’s explorations, emphasising the enduring buoyancy and fluidity of his playing all the more.
Inevitably, this evening was always going to be about one man. The set took in meditative vamps, mid-tempo swingers, a wistful ballad dedication to JJ Johnson and more calypso, and in each piece Rollins carved out a quirky gem of a solo that proved to be the standout moment.
In his eighty-third year, Rollins may not produce quite the searing be-bop of his youth, but his improvisations retain the ability to captivate. He still appears to be exploring the possibilities in a repeated single note or simple motive, finding new ways to wrap it around the rhythmic framework. He alternated between lucid pentatonic fragments and wispy, twelve-tone flourishes, united by that winning tone, as impassioned now as it was on his recordings as a teenager with Bud Powell in the 1940s. Rollins smuggled in some of his freest, most atonal playing of the evening into the audience favourite, ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’, without compromising any of the piece’s feel-good factor.
It is this once-in-a-generation combination of unfettered freedom of expression and massive popular appeal that have made Rollins one of the giants of the music. As long as he continues playing, I am sure London will keep welcoming him back with open arms.