Sonny Rollins took the stage at the Flynn Theater as part of the Discover Jazz Festival‚ walking slowly‚ a bit hunched over like you would expect for a man a few months shy of 80. With his dark shades on‚ gold sax in hand like it's an extension of his body‚ and his afro and beard perfectly matched with his bright white coat‚ you couldn't help but feel that the coolest man on the planet just arrived to play some music.
The next eight or so minutes of music that kicked off the show made an even more compelling case. His band be-bopped and galloped behind him like a rollicking train while he soloed‚ breathing one good idea after another through his horn. It was an exhilarating display of imagination.
After that‚ the next two tunes covered island-y calypso and the standard ballad format‚ and it was more of the same from Sonny -- a constant flow of melodic ideas coming from his tenor. His band‚ however‚ left much to be desired through these tunes. Percussionist Sammy Figueroa took a conga solo that generated the reaction you'd expect from an audience who only goes out to see music a few times a year: predictably aroused by something relatively generic. Guitarist Russell Malone's two solos here were played like someone with a jazz guitar doctorate degree -- hard as hell to play‚ but robotic with very little being said. Other than Sonny giving the band something to move along to‚ the band's solos were much like the audience's reaction to them: way too polite.
After Sonny said hello to the crowd‚ made a funny or two about being back in Burlington (he played Discover Jazz Festival in 2003) and how we won't be hearing "Moonlight in Vermont" this evening‚ things started to shift with "Why Was I Born." The comfort level‚ looseness and/or adventurous side of the band slowly opened up. Now we were hearing some jazz.
Sonny said in a recent interview‚ "Jazz transcends life and death as we know it on this planet." That comes from understanding how to communicate with each other on a higher level. Jazz is about the great conversations -- the rapid-fire exchange of great ideas and emotion -- and here we were‚ hearing what he's lived so much of his life doing. He would throw an idea out‚ and drummer Kobie Watkins would react and throw an idea back. The rest of band would join in‚ tossing around hiccups here and there to jump over. The music became more suggestive‚ with more flare and sparks popping off the stage. And the solos became a bit more emotive‚ including the jazz-guitar-precision-machine Russell Malone‚ who actually started sounding like a human. It was a relief‚ and just made everything so much more fulfilling‚ as Sonny was on fire all night. Although I still feel like Sonny's band members lacked any sort of definitive personality‚ there was some inspiration pouring off of the stage.
The dynamics radically changed when guitarist Jim Hall (who played the night before as part of Discover Jazz) sat in for a couple of numbers. It was immediate when he started playing a variation on the melody of Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood" that you could hear‚ undoubtedly‚ a unique personality enter the fold. And you were hearing some deep history as well. A few days earlier I was listening to The Bridge‚ Sonny's classic record from 1965‚ where Jim Hall shines; these two have made timeless music together. Someone in the audience just had to yell it -- "It's Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins together!!!" -- which got its own spontaneous applause line. What ensued was pure magic: two masters listening‚ reacting and making wonderful music together. Also pure magic is when it gets to the point when the only thing happening is music. I drifted further than I did all night during this segment. I wasn't analyzing anything; I wasn't anywhere except in the midst of the music they were making. You become unaware of the person next to you or in front of you‚ and you become a void where a sea of thoughts can come and go‚ and the potential for inspiration is endless. They got there‚ and you can't ask for more than a moment like that in an hour-and-a-half show.
After Hall left the stage to a standing ovation‚ Sonny came back for a quick one where he sang about getting it on with a married woman and shame on her for it. His humor‚ and the rest of his humanness‚ was fully intact. The band received a standing ovation and Sonny gave multiple fist pumps in the air before walking off stage. Yeah‚ he could very well be the coolest man on the planet.