Walking into the Beacon Theater, its stately splendor, its classic feel... a big night shine to everything, a feeling that something important is about to happen...everyone buzzing in a mad hive of excitement...the classic statues and tiled ceilings and the gaudy chandeliers...it was like a night at the opera or the ballet...the anticipation was quite maddening actually...but there was nothing phony about it.
The lights dimmed and Stanley Crouch came sauntering out in a merry way...the "black frog" himself in all his intellectual splendor...his caterpillar (sometimes quite ugly!) of real life wrapped in a sweet cocoon of SOUL, then of course, the butterfly analogy (Sonny=jazz?)...the legacy of Louis Armstrong carried on, not by Monk, Coltrane or Charley Parker, but most notably and nobly by Mr. Sonny Rollins...ladies and gentlemen, I give you...
Sonny comes lurching, slouching ("towards Bethlehem to be born"?) Move over Rover `cause' Sonny's comin' over...out of the shadows of anticipation, already blowing like a madman...in fact, white shirt down to his knees, black handkerchief in pocket, white, wiry hair all fro-ed out like a mad scientist with a mischievous grin and an I-told-you-so attitude...Wow! The tone is set and so is the bar, way up high where you better get on and swing like a wild ape or you're gonna be left on the ground with the human beings, the squares.
Sonny is getting into it like a primitive learning how to walk...insistent floods of mixed themes and styles, breaking it down and building it up...and always that island breeze blowing through the charging congas (Sammy Figueroa) and Crenshaw's bass, the sound is impeccably clean except for Sonny's dirty bird riffs that chortle, grumble, gruffly like a playful Griot from West Africa...the satire, the sardonic tone of a West Indies social critic like Lord Kitchner mixed with a North American harshness, almost scatological in its in-your-faceness.
All this at 80! ...it's more than anyone expected...a feeling of shock moves through the audience...all we can do is sit there and stare as if it's some kind of freak of nature...like an 80 year old making full court moves on a basketball court and continuously dunking hard at both ends!...once again there is something primal in the air...this might be where youth and age meet and merge into one perpetual man-child of JAZZ.
Next Roy Hargrove...introduced by Sonny as a man "chosen by the Creator" to lay down his sound on earth...he comes out, unearthly though, with a solo ( I Can't Get Started) so pure and cool, a heavenly dream of mellowness, a magical, seamless ride with a confidence that is almost other-worldly...(sweet cream on ice?)..it's really a dream within a dream that makes me think of sadness, loneliness and contentment all wrapped into one, the kind of love that makes you yearn and relish at the same time.
Roy is dressed in a slick suit with a jaunty hat and diamond(?)belt, big old shades and even bigger black tennis shoes...if he's not gay, he should be...he is an exquisite, delicate, perfectly conceived little elf/sprite...looks like a 21st Century Little Willie John with his sweet way of tilting his head, so cock-sure of his approach, no questions asked...never even looking at the hulking Neanderthal Rollins on his left who is taunting him into his cave...nothing could get to this guy in his hermetically sealed solo...he's keeping himself pure and clean...the beauty and the beast?
Next...Sonny says: "Here's the jazz guitarists' jazz guitarist Jim Hall..." Hall, with an acute spinal problem, literally crawls onto the stage and slinks into his chair nodding seriously to Sonny...he seems out of sync and a little worried about fitting into the celebratory mood...slowly and surely he picks it up and gets into his dreamy state...a sense of loss and regret comes across as Sonny adjusts to and eases up on him, giving him a break to gather himself and return to the style that he is accustomed to...there's a generosity of spirit here as Sonny defers to a fellow icon and allows him to get more comfortable with his age and place in the jazz continuum...Hall responds with delicacy and respect as he settles in to his sound...like underwater fantasy land...contemplative, deep water here...I see Hall with a snorkel, mask and guitar in a primordial ocean...the Great Barrier Reef ?
Now Sonny is talking about jazz being the " music's music", the foundation for the building, the origin...I think of Cecil Taylor and hear an echo of my past and the ongoing parade of musicians who pay heed and respect to the timeless nature of the SOUNDS and RHYTHMS of life itself.
Now two unannounced (unexpected?) guests flood onto the stage ...a large hulking man in a classy dark suit (the mountainous bass player, Christian McBride) and a fortyish looking Disco Danny who turns out to be 85 year old drummer, Roy Haynes ...McBride bows so massively that you could feel the wind of his serious respect for Rollins while Haynes, with his gold chains, gold jump suit and cool shades just glides past Sonny to his home-the drum set...McBride picks up the bass and instrument and man become Siamese Twins, with absolutely no hesitation he becomes one with his instrument, it's like breathing for him...at times the large bass becomes his toy...I almost forgot how good this guy is...as for Haynes, he simply drops a bomb of a solo on us...crisp, explosive and flawless...his look is Las Vegas (where he lives!) but his grenade kind of sound reminds us of a road side bomb in Iraq...This trio is another treat for us...another layer of icing on Sonny's cake.
For the coup de grace, Sonny announces that someone with a horn is backstage and wants to join the party...who could it be? A buzzing around the audience ensues as Sonny beckons, welcomes, teases him out...no one appears and the crowd grows restless with suspense...finally, who comes out but Ornette Coleman with a jaunty hat and a shy smile on his face...he curtseys to Rollins and glides over to take his hand in his...and gives it a soft kiss...what a scene!...some of the crowd goes wild...but why do I get the distinct feeling that over half the crowd has no idea who this man is?...As for me, I was privileged to attend Ornette's Reunion Concert at Town Hall 3 years ago, but he's the last person I expected to join the party!
So here they are, sort of a Day and Night of sound and structure trying to pay respect to each other without losing their identities...it's harder for Ornette; he simply lives on another planet with its own air, its distinct landscapes and water...he can't just come back to earth to meet Rollins...Sonny has to go to his world, and, after some awkward attempts at meeting half way, Sonny gives in, letting Coleman take him on a rocket ship ride to his bizarre world...Sonny is up to this task and plays freer than I've ever heard him, with no earthly shackles, Rollins relaxes and starts to breathe the new air...he's along for the joy ride and he loves it...the audience knows what's happening as it too concedes to Ornette's brave new "shape of things to come"...must admit that he will always be more than one step ahead of his time.
As if this wasn't enough already! Sonny and crew get called back for an encore...it's Saint Thomas of course, and that Caribbean wind is blowing again with Figueroa going crazy on the congas...calypso sweetness and the soft side of life with its tropical feel of groove and nonchalance... so free and easy that a child could do it just by playing on the beach.
Did I fail to mention Russell Malone's three sumptuous guitar solos? Sorry.
What a night! I walked out in a trance...almost an unreal feeling...inspiration can come in many forms but when it comes from music it's sweeter, more sustainable...it's the air these guys breathe, and, yes, it is that ugly caterpillar's coming-out party...for me, it's the past, present and future wrapped in that cocoon but as Sonny so aptly put: it's all about "being in the moment"...I think about how lucky we all are to be able to help each other to do just that!