In the Presence of Greatness: The Saxophone Colossus

Man, I can finally die in peace now: I have just seen Sonny Rollins perform live.

I can’t quite believe this: it’s fucking Sonny Rollins, a living jazz legend, one of the last. Once he and Ornette Coleman dies, all the jazz legends of the previous generation will have died.

He’s one of the last, and to have heard him perform and rock the shit of the tenor sax is a privilege to say the least. I mean, if you talk about Sonny Rollins, you are talking about one of the greatest sax players of all time–he’s up there with Charlie Parker and Coltrane. If you look at whom he has recorded or played with, you are essentially listing a who’s who of jazz in the 20th century: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, and John Coltrane.

I mean, damn, just look at that list of names: I can’t even imagine hearing all those guys live at their peaks, let alone perform with them!

Yet even after all those legends died, Sonny Rollins is still standing, but who knows for how long. That is why when I first heard that he was coming to Berkeley, I told myself that I would go to that show, come hell or high water. There was no way in fucking hell I was going to miss that show.

And it did not disappoint. In fact, it rocked my world and blew my mind.

To state it simply: the man still got it, after all these years. Still got it, the liquidity, the pyrotechnics, the tone, the improvisational genius. I was in a trance for two hours, and after it was over, I barely felt any passage of time. I wanted more, I wanted Sonny Rollins all night, all day, everyday.

I can’t believe that a 77 year old man can still rock so fucking hard for two hours. Sonny was looking decidedly gangster as he made his entrance: all black attires, hair and beard grey with a tinge of white, and rocking a pair of shades. Yes, a pair of shades at night, indoors. But you know what, he made it work.

He looks physically weak, as he was almost wobbling across the stage, back bent slightly, keeping time by snapping his fingers, directing his band, and in a particularly joyous moment, after finishing a soulful solo, turned toward the audience and shrugged his shoulders, as if to say: Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing, but what I sure as hell am having fun rocking your world and melting faces.

And his voice belies his tone: his voice is gravel, a slightly cracked deep baritone, but man oh man is his tone smooooooth and fluid, dynamic, always changing, but also capable of firework when he feels like it.

This is why I love live music, especially live music performed by a fucking genius: you can just see it, the music is flowing through him, like he’s the gateway to some absolutely transcendentally sublime shit. He lives through the music because he’s just blowing wild and free, but yet exerting fine and subtle control, totally belying his age and physical condition. Like Nietzsche says, the artist simply becomes the manifestation of some hidden beauty, himself a canvass upon which this beautiful, otherwise hidden, is projected and made visible to the audience.

I think my friend Pat put it the best after coming out of the show: He just blew my mind, and now I don’t know what to do with myself.


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