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A Bridge Too Far?

Sonny Rollins / Cyrus Chestnut Quintet
Highland Park, IL
June 15, 2002

Review by Brad Walseth
Photos by Tony Bonyata

If, as the late Frank Zappa said, jazz is the "music of unemployment," then bebop must be the music of starvation; no one understands this fact better than legendary tenor saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, who appeared in front of a sparse crowd at the Ravinia Pavilion last Friday night. Kudos to Ravinia's Jazz in June series for once again taking a stand and bringing in a neglected and important artist from jazz's finest era, as opposed to booking yet another "popular" act sure to bring in money come rain or come shine.
Sonny Rollins Opening on the double bill was the Cyrus Chestnut Quintet, led by pianist Chestnut, and featuring alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and Vibraphonist Stefon Harris, performing a set of the pianist's own work, as well as a couple of the Vince Guaraldi "Charlie Brown" tunes that the Chestnut has previously covered. The joyous gospel inspired playing of the young piano player was earthy and powerful. Although adept at playing a sparkling melody (such as Guaraldi's take on Beethoven's "Fur Elise"), Chestnut was at his best producing rolling bluesy rumblings that exhibit a well-schooled grounding in the styles of stride pianist Fats Waller and early jazz traditionalist Jelly Roll Morton. The New Orleans-styled, funky riffs inherent in his playing, oozed with barbecue sauce, and made the fact he played with Wynton Marsalis no surprise; and his tremolo chordings brought to mind Gershwin, or at least the Marcus Roberts version of Gershwin.
Despite battling illness, the affable young bandleader invited the audience to "join the party," and it was easy to comply. Ably backed by a solid rhythm section, soloists Gary Bartz (bravely handling the task of playing ahead of perhaps the greatest saxophone soloist ever) and Stefon Harris both produced solos of exceptional breadth and quality. The music, a melange of bluesy funk, gospel, bebop, West-coast cool, and even classicism, occasionally veered dangerously close to "Lite," but was rescued by unexpected ventures into minor-key progressions and the exploratory nature of the solos. Their best song of the evening was the title track of the most recent recording - "Soul Food," a tasty offering that simmered and bubbled like a delightful stew of old and new jazz styles, and left listeners with such a good taste in their ears, that I am confident we will hear much more from this talented young man as he continues his career.
Sonny Rollins In discussing the main act of the evening, it must be pointed out that the importance of Sonny Rollins to the history of jazz cannot be understated (although Ken Burns did his best). Although never a composer of the level of Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, or Thelonius Monk, several of his compositions (Doxy, Oleo, Airegin, Valse Hot) are standards in the jazz repertoire, and he is well known for his integration of calypso in jazz, as well as his imaginative arrangements of (often lame) popular songs. His primary importance, however, is that from Charlie Parker through the Bop and BeBop eras of the 40's and 50's to John Coltrane's sonic explorations and Ornette Coleman's free jazz in the early sixties, Sonny was THE MAN on sax - the most intelligent and melodically inventive soloist since Bird, and the only one who ever stood toe to toe with Trane and came out alive (check out their only recording together - 1956's Tenor Madness if you don't believe me).
In the late fifties, Rollins was part of a quartet led by up and coming young trumpeter Clifford Brown, which included Max Roach on drums, and Richie Powell on piano. Many expected this band to lead BeBop into the future, however; their hopes were dashed when Brown and Powell were killed in an auto accident, effectively killing the era of BeBop in the process. Shortly thereafter, Sonny took his famous sabbatical; whereupon, dissatisfied by his own playing, he practiced at night on the Williamsburg Bridge, releasing on his return in 1960 - "The Bridge" - a solid and worthy effort, but one that seemed restrained and dated to many of the new jazz camp who were excited by the new sounds they were hearing. It was as if Sonny saw where jazz was going and tried to take the steps toward it, but in the end could not change his joyful personality: he could not cross that bridge into the angry, abstract, angular future represented by those avant garde avatars: Coleman and Coltrane. Since that time, exceptional recordings from Sonny have been rare, and he has delved into funk, r&b, and further calypso-tinged recordings that have turned many jazz purists against him. Despite his spotty recording track record, Sonny has managed to retain his status as the "Saxophone Colossus" to this day for the lengthy, inspired solos that mark his concert appearances.
Friday night's concert continued this trend as Sonny took the stage dressed an undertaker-gray suit, shades, and a pork pie hat. The white-bearded "Colossus" appears to be diminutive in stature, but at age 72 _ is still limber and sprightly, actively working the stage, while looking like a skinny, hipster Santa, or a deranged garden gnome. Despite some reservations regarding the set list and the quality of his backing band, there could be no denying the power of the saxophonist's incendiary, creative playing. Whether within or outside of the beat, his skill in improvising melodic inventions within the chord structure (or cousin thereof) was stunning. With a slightly more legato style than his famous staccato attack of the 50's, he produced blazing, furious riffs after riffs, in a calculated manner designed to please an audience raised on MTV and speed metal; and his lightning fast fingers and quick mind would surely cause a whole generation of Kenny-G wannabes to slink back to the woodshed for some extended practice (or a bridge - to jump off of).
Unfortunately, also highlighting the brilliance of Rollins' efforts was the lackluster performance of his backing band. Fine musicians all, they simply could not keep up in the presence of genius, although the smooth, J.J. Johnson-inspired solos of trombonist Clifton Anderson were commendable. Long-time Rollins bassist Bob Cranshaw gave a solid effort, but seemed tired; his electric bass sounding tinny in comparison with the full and meaty sound of acoustic bassist Michael Hawkins who backed Cyrus Chestnut so admirably. Pianist Stephen Scott, hampered by sound problems through the first three numbers, provided undistinguished support and forgettable solos, while percussionist Kimati Dinizulu and drummer Steve Jordan were equally lackluster: the latter, certainly no Max Roach. The band only seemed to catch fire during the fast, hard-driving Bebop number - "Why Was I Born?," (which proved that Sonny's bebop instincts are still intact), and they seemed to lapse into autopilot while Sonny performed a 20-something minute solo during his ever popular calypso (and biggest "hit")- "St. Thomas."
The fact that a man at Sonny's advanced age would even consider a 20 minute solo, along with the realization that he throws away more interesting phrases in a matter of minutes than most musicians discover in a lifetime, certainly does much to excuse the shameless mugging, squeaks, whistles, and foghorns he pulls out of his bag of tricks to the delight of the dancing audience. For in the end, Sonny, like Diz was, is a joyous and fun-loving person - a good hearted man who seeks to entertain a crowd, and who calls out to the audience for everyone to "live by the golden rule" and not to drive "gas guzzlers" in order to save the planet. That he could not completely cross that bridge into the free jazz disintegration of the 60's that led to fusion and the final breakdown of jazz as a viable, breathing, art form (perhaps he saw it even then - the Second Law of Thermodynamics - the breakdown of a closed system from order to chaos through entropy) taking place before his very ears, and has had to conform to changing fashion in order to make a living is no crime, and perhaps his easy-going nature and sense of humor is what has kept him going strong after we have lost so many of his contemporaries to drugs and darkness. Although, I, for one, would have preferred more bebop and less of his more accessible and popular styles, I am also well aware that the ever-dwindling audience of hard bop enthusiasts would not fill auditoriums to pay Sonny's bills. As perhaps our last link, a bridge, so to speak, to a golden age of American music, let us not quibble over water under the bridge, but rather rejoice in what time we still have with the man and his music.

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