Review: Sonny Rollins 80th Birthday Concert

Let me say right off that this isn’t really a review. More of an impression of a very special episode of Sonny Rollins in concert. Also, I didn’t take any notes, so I can remember what I remember and that’s it. Caveat, uh, you. (UPDATE: See the comments section for song titles provided by an audience member with a much better memory.) (UPDATE 2: Peter Hum posted an article that includes the full set list.)

The Beacon is a gorgeous venue. The sound was excellent and the ornate decorations lent the evening the feel of a big-city gala. I think that atmosphere was also helped by the fact that this was a big-city gala. The place was stuffed with famous jazz and arts folks. I sat between jazz writer Larry Blumenfeld and poet Steve Dalachinsky. Behind me was multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Batiste (of the New Orleans Batistes) and up several rows in front was saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Steve Dalachinsky and I both thought we saw the poet Yusef Komunyakaa, but we weren’t 100% sure. Anyway, the list goes on.

Sonny opened the show with the night’s “core” band: Russell Malone on guitar, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Kobie Watkins on drums (hear him on TJS #132) and Sammy Figueroa on congas. They played two tunes, the second of which was “Global Warming,” one of my favorite of Sonny’s calypso tunes. Then the parade of special guests began.

First up was trumpeter Roy Hargrove, looking modern and dapper in a tight black suit, fedora, white shirt, narrow black tie and big sneakers. Roy opened up with “I Can’t Get Started” on flugelhorn and then he and Sonny played a second tune together (no, I can’t remember which tune) that featured a lot of trading fours. In fact, probably too much trading fours. At one point Roy just started playing the head and they went out. All very good-natured and fun to watch.

The next guest was guitarist Jim Hall, with whom Sonny recorded some of his seminal albums when, as Sonny said in his introduction, “I was a very young boy.” Hall seemed fairly tentative on the guitar, even for someone famous for often understated playing. Sonny started an unaccompanied version of “In A Sentimental Mood” and Hall began to play along, quickly realizing that he and Sonny were nowhere near in tune. So Sonny added a repetitive tuning note to his solo, Hall tuned his guitar, the crowd laughed, and Hall picked up where Sonny left off, finishing with his own unaccompanied take on “In A Sentimental Mood.” There was also a second tune (nope, can’t remember it).

Following Hall’s set, the entire band left the stage, leaving Sonny there alone. He brought out bassist Christian McBride and someone he said “showed up unannounced,” drummer Roy Haynes. Can I just say that Roy Haynes is easily the baddest human being alive? He looked better than anybody in the Beacon — dressed to kill, walking cool, shades, a shiny suit and a great smile to the audience. The trio played a ballad that featured a typically high-energy solo from Roy. Then they went into a medium-tempo blues (a famous one, too, but I still can’t recall what it was). This dragged on a bit too long, and Sonny walked up to the mic while the rhythm section was playing and said, “I’ve been told there’s someone here who wants to say ‘happy birthday’™ to me, and he’s got a horn. I wish he would come out right now.” Sonny kept soloing while all three musicians looked offstage, waiting.

Then Ornette Coleman walked out on stage. The place went, if I may use a technical term, batshit crazy. Everybody on their feet, yelling, screaming. Ornette soloed, then he and Sonny traded, which pushed Sonny into a more free place than at any other time during the show. It was wonderful. At that point, the band was Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride. More than 240 years living up there on stage.

Everybody but Ornette came out for a rousing version of “St. Thomas” featuring strong solos and interplay between Sonny and Roy Hargrove. The fifth standing ovation and it was over.

I felt very, very lucky to be there.

Author: Jason Crane

13 thoughts on “Review: Sonny Rollins 80th Birthday Concert

  1. Nice job! I was lucky to be there also, and think you’ve described the evening well. I can help you out with the tunes that you can’t remember. The second tune that Roy Hargrove played was Raincheck. The second tune that Jim Hall played was If Ever I Would Leave You. The ballad that Christian McBride played was Solitude, and the blues that followed was Sonnymoon…For Two.

  2. Thanks for providing some of the song titles. The only one of the tunes I didn’t recognize was the very first one of the night. Do you know the name of that song? I’d never heard Sonny do that one before so it must be new.

  3. i’m pretty sure sonny said: “I’ve been told there’s someone here who wants to SING ‘happy birthday’ to me, and he’s got a horn. I wish he would come out right now.”
    when ornette (finally) came out he dropped to one knee and kissed sonny’s hand as one would kiss the pope’s ring….

    and damn! roy haynes still has an am amazing right foot!

  4. The opening number is called “Patan Jali” on the set list or “Patanjali” as I’ve seen it mentioned elsewhere. Never heard the song before, so I don’t know where it came from. But Sonny was wailing on it last night!!!

  5. the jazz event of the year–if not more. sonny’s 80 yrs young–played almost 2 hrs straight, never sat down, horn out of his mouth maybe 10 minutes total. know any young pups who could keep up ?
    the highlight for me was ornette’s appearance–historic. they’ve never recorded together, and as far as i know, never played together. yeah, sonny opened up more, changed his angle & tone a bit. intriguing, i’m still digesting it. would love to see them together in concert.
    only disappointment–audience didn’t get a chance to sing happy birthday to sonny.

  6. a historic concert.sonny and roy hargrove tore the house down. roy haynes played like he was twenty five again.seeing jim hall , ornette, and sonny together, priceless.

  7. I had a ticket and got rid of it (for less than face) value because I had a perceived conflict.
    I am devastated that I wasn’t there.
    Does anyone think the concert was recorded?

  8. i attended the book signing in manhattan last nite (9/14) for the new book Saxophone Colossus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins beautiful, great photos by john abbot, text by bob blumenthal.

    i got a chance to ask sonny at the signing if there was a chance that he & ornette might arrange to perform together. sonny’s reply–“we’re looking into it “.
    jazz gossip scoop of the year ?

  9. who’d have thought — when in the ’60s the Ornette albums were (perceived as) so far from the Sonny albums
    it’s all music to make the heart sing.

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