Barbican Centre, November 14th 2009
Don't Stop the Carnival.
The title of the calypso anthem says it all, really. This was the tune which brought Sonny Rollins ' Barbican appearance in the London Jazz Festival to a rousing, triumphant, and thoroughly fitting close. Drummer Kobie Watkins, was hitting the accented fourth beat of every bar, good, hard, and double-handed. Rollins ended the tune with a series of rhythmically punched low B flats, bringing that sense of completeness by resonating the whole saxophone tube. The entire audience swayed, smiled, and then stood as one.
"I've just heard the governor," was the verdict immediately afterwards of one of the top saxophonists in Europe, reduced to child-like awe. An hour and a half had somehow raced by, where had it gone? Rollins at 79 has that effect on all of us. "The living embodiment of a great tradition" was Geoffrey Smith's description as he welcomed the band to the stage.
What I kept noticing was the etiquette of Rollins' band, and the space they all give to Sonny Rollins to just be himself. Jazz is a collaborative art form, it requires generosity, and a collective will to fill the same set of air molecules with sounds which are going to work together. And perhaps above all, it requires patience.
I noticed that if guitarist Bobby Broom indulged himself in rhythmic tension and displacement during his solos, then the baton-change for the next soloist was always neatly offered with a perfectly wrapped gift of a closing cadence .
When bassist Bob Cranshaw had his rare moments of freedom from underscoring the harmonic rhythm, he invariably used them to sing a melody with sweetness, beauty and blooming sound, rather than to show off technique.
And if trombonist Clifton Anderson plays the chord tones, avoids the extensions, states the first beat, it is with a purpose: to leave Rollins the capacity to roam airily and weightlessly wherever he wants. To smear, to suggest, to drift a semitone away, to comment. To be Sonny Rollins.
Rollins can no longer unleash the unstoppable torrent of breath, ideas, sound he once did. But the Rollins sound is full, the Rollins presence is God-like, the Rollins gig is an experience to enjoy. And to repeat.
Don't Stop the Carnival. Ever.