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Torrential rainstorms, parking nightmares and dangerous umbrellas did not dampen the spirit and enthusiasm of a nearly sold-out crowd arriving at Memorial Hall on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus to experience a legend in the truest sense of the word. Carolina Performing Arts presented tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, and for jazz fans this was a unique opportunity to see and hear an artist who has survived into nearly his 80th year and has been an innovator and giant since the late 1940s.
One of the gripes about big-name non-classical concerts has been that, more often than not, the audience needs to endure one and sometimes several warm-up acts before the artist you spent your hard-earned money to see arrives on stage. Not tonight. Although there was an excellent quintet playing in the lobby, once the actual concert began — with a wonderful introduction by UNC Director of Jazz Studies James Ketch — Sonny Rollins and his five-piece group strode out and started cooking right away.
At the age of 79, Rollins is a survivor of a tough life, and his gait and somewhat stooped posture show all of those years, but once he starts playing his horn, he is ageless and every bit as strong and inventive as his playing was forty years ago. This was a no-nonsense performance with little talking, except for the introduction of his band and a few parting remarks. Much of the evening was taken up with original compositions that ended up as blowing sessions to highlight the extraordinary improvisational skills of Rollins and his musicians. However there were a few standards such as the beautiful ballad “My One and Only Love,” and “Falling in Love is Wonderful” that demonstrated how great jazz musicians take the familiar and transform and tear it down while still retaining the original in the listeners’ mind.
The epochal story about Rollins is that, despite his great success in the mid- and late-1950s (the great era of bebop jazz), he was still dissatisfied with his playing and the music business. He dropped out of sight in 1959 and spent much of the next three years practicing – much of that on the Williamsburg Bridge that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn. When he triumphantly returned, most of his recordings were piano-less, and tonight’s band followed that practice. Guitarist Bobby Broom unobtrusively comped in the background but stepped out with several scintillating solos. Conga player Sammy Figueroa added a nice exotic flavoring especially during a wonderful calypso number that was reminiscent of Rollins’ big hit “St. Thomas.” Although drummers are often overlooked, if you focused in on the young Colby Watkins it was quite remarkable how he was not only driving the bus but also creating scenery that elevated everyone’s pleasure. And not only was the group without piano, but instead of the usual trumpet complementing the saxophone, trombonist Clifton Anderson was a stunning presence. His imaginative improvisations and technical fluidity were a marvel.
As it turned out, the final number played was “Tenor Madness,” a well-known Rollins composition that combines a great head with ample opportunity for all the players to showcase their prodigious chops. After 6-8 minutes of a strong effort from the audience to entice an encore, the house lights came on and thus ended an evening where one can say without reservation, “I just saw and heard a musical legend.”