Sonny Rollins: Without A Song - The 9/11 Concert (Milestone)
Well, the 9/15 concert. You see, Sonny Rollins was in his downtown NYC apartment on 9/11, and saw the second tower fall. After the area lost power and phone service, Rollins and his neighbors were evacuated the next day. His wife and co-producer Lucille (now sadly deceased) convinced him not to cancel his Saturday night concert in Boston. The opening number on this standards-heavy program, "Without a Song," proclaims their belief in the importance of music in the face of such tragedies (he later says, in his understated way, "Maybe music can help, I don't know, but we have to try something these days"). And if I'd been in that audience -- in the city from which the planes that were hijacked had taken off -- I'd have felt considerably buoyed by this performance. Not that it's perfect. The problem with this album is the same one that most of Rollins's albums and concerts of recent years have had: He towers so far above the other players that all the interest is in his playing, and yet there are all the other players' solos taking up space.
Now, on one level, that's a horribly unfair criticism. Trombonist Clifton Anderson, for instance, is an excellent player who sports an attractively bassy tone, fluid improvisatory skills, and more than enough technique to play anything he conceives of. Pianist Stephen Scott was well on his way to an impressive solo career before he joined Rollins's band (where, it must be said, he acquired a more brittle, percussive sound -- and his derangedly out-of-tune scatting has got to go). Longtime Rollins electric bassist Bob Cranshaw still offers reliable support, and drummer Perry Wilson, if no Al Foster, is solid. (Percussionist Kimati Dinizulu's contributions are colorful but minor.) But aside from Scott's brief foray onto the strings inside the piano on the locally-inspired ballad "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," nobody in this band but Rollins sounds like he's trying to go beyond the expected to reach the ecstatic or transcendent.
That's not to say they don't create excitement; Scott's (especially) and Anderson's solos on "Why Was I Born?" are pretty feverish. But they also could have been played 50 years ago without raising many eyebrows. Listen to Rollins, by contrast, on his only original on the program, "Global Warming," the second track and the one where things heat up. It's another one of his calypso-inspired tunes, and as his lengthy solo builds, he finds great momentum in its groove. But he does much more, employing startling timbres and unexpected register shifts, because despite the occasion, Rollins is never about "comfort music." He makes the music less comfortable, more challenging -- and more exciting, more original. His unaccompanied intro to "Why Was I Born?" is another classic Sonny moment, and his rhythmic variety at points in his later solo on that tune makes all the other players sound foursquare in comparison.
Oddly, it's Rollins, who was 71-years old when this gig was recorded, who sounds like the daring young man; most of the other players are roughly half his age but sound like a bunch of conservative old guys being careful not to draw outside the lines. But that's okay. There can't be many jazz fans who don't know that's what they'll be getting now. They also know that Sonny is so great that it's worth sitting through the pro forma moments to get to hear him. Wishing that he'd work with David S. Ware's rhythm section instead is (probably) pointless. Sonny doesn't need youngsters to challenge him; he challenges himself. There are more than enough "Sonny moments" on this disk to make it a worthwhile, even inspiring, experience. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.