Jazz review: Sonny Rollins at Royce Hall
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There was a pleasant sort of symmetry to Thursday night’s performance by 81-year-old jazz giant Sonny Rollins at UCLA. Coincidentally scheduled opposite the opening night of the Angel City Jazz Festival across town in Little Tokyo, it was easy to see a clearer through line than any of our freeways could offer that connected Rollins’ unstoppable pursuit of in-the-moment creation with practically every boundary-pushing jazz artist who has since followed in his wake.
Although Rollins’ 90-minute set may not have been marked by the same sort of improvisational swinging-for-the-fences that can characterize many players who came up since the avant-garde era, what it delivered was a showcase for one of the titans of the music to flex his ongoing dedication to an unfettered exploration of melody, invention and time.
Rollins, who is also scheduled to appear at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa on Sunday, showed that his signature approach can still uncover surprises after so many years.
Entering in an oversize shirt and matching sunglasses under an unruly cloud of sorcerer-white hair, Rollins began with the insistent ‘Patanjali,’ a still-unrecorded recent concert fixture with an insistent, night-crawling groove led by Sammy Figueroa on congas.
With drummer Kobie Watkins and bassist Bob Cranshaw pushing the rhythm ahead with a percolating, locomotive force, Rollins’ solo spiraled around the song’s core until coalescing into a single, searing note that stretched far into the night as the saxophonist dropped his right hand with a swaggering flourish.
It was the kind of opener that made it seem as if the band had been cooking on its own for hours, maybe even years, just beyond the curtain.
Ostensibly touring behind the recently released ‘Road Shows Vol. 2,’ Rollins had a bit of an unenviable task of following a live CD that includes four songs from his star-studded 80th birthday concert last year, which was highlighted by a surprise, first-time pairing with Ornette Coleman on a sprawling ‘Sonnymoon for Two.’
While no such guests stepped from the wings at Royce Hall, Rollins’ bandmates were given room to run on their own. With Rollins standing in front of the kit, he seemed to be goading Watkins further into a steady battery of intricately mannered mini-solos that framed ‘Serenade’ before the saxophonist regained the reins, dropping a sly nod to ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ at the solo’s close.
With the bulk of the night carrying a cozy, classic swing, a late-set run through Rollins’ ‘Nishi’ accelerated atop a compact, funk-dusted pulse from Watkins, pushing the saxophonist into a slippery solo that dipped up and down the scale over a dark bass line by Cranshaw. As the band coursed into the genial calypso bounce of set-closer ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival,’ a humble, ever-restless Rollins sounded almost apologetic.
‘Life is not about doing, it’s about trying,’ Rollins said as a sort of farewell with a pinched, raspy voice. ‘And I’m trying baby, we’re all trying.’ As a mixed crowd young converts and longtime devotees rose to their feet, Rollins’ efforts still sounded sharp.
-- Chris Barton
Sonny Rollins, 4 p.m. Sunday, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa; $25-$66; scfta.org.