Scattered thoughts on seeing Sonny Rollins blow live – aged 80 – at The Barbican

The overused superlative “endless flow of ideas” dwarfs into a meaningless cliché after hearing Sonny Rollins’ torrential bombardment of sax. Notes cascaded out of the giant’s towering tenor, swelling to climax after climax, ears overflowing with peaks like water dashing over rapids. Like a tap, once turned ideas flowed out of Rollins, ceasing only briefly to mark the end of one tune and the beginning of the next. Diving up and down scales, squealing and squalling riotously, the instrument became an extension of his person – and persona, those well-trodden bebop phrases are only worn because he played them first.

The band of drummer, percussionist, guitarist and electric bassist Bob Cranshaw – now in his fifth decade backing Rollins – were limited to simplistic vamps: blues, ballads and grooves which acted as little more than a platform for Sonny to blow over. Guitarist Russell Malone provided more rhythmic support than harmonic variance, seemingly content to spin clichés, his own solo moments were comprised of ear-pleasing runs and over-used licks.

But it was all about the blowing, and boy did he blow. Improvising for a good 90 minutes of the two-hours-plus set, Rollins imaginative prowess is unrivalled. Bobbling around the stage in a billowing red shirt, barely able to stay upright, the 80-year-old somehow maintains the lungs of an Olympic swimmer a quarter his age.

It seems notable that the most historically influential performer at this year’s London Jazz Festival provided perhaps the least challenging music. But what has he got to prove? Playing Latin-influenced grooves, this was a jazz sound that wasn’t even trailblazing in the sixties when Sonny first premiered it. And what a joyous sound is was, rounding off the set with the joyous celebration of Don’t Stop the Carnival, it seemed we’d seen a something remarkable. Remarkable he’s still standing, still playing at all, let alone still soaring with such a youthful vitality and exuberance.


Rollins’ performed at The Barbican for London Jazz Festival in November 2010; he was 80 at the time.

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