Tenor Madness

At 72, Sonny Rollins remains one of jazz's biggest enigmas -- and a hugely rewarding live performer

Rollins spent the next two years working on his sound, and the way he did it -- more specifically, where he did it -- is almost as famous as the break itself. Having honed his craft against the roar of the Atlantic Ocean earlier in his career, he now found an even quirkier spot: under the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. His tenure there became so legendary that other musicians, such as soprano sax master Steve Lacy, used to visit him under the bridge for impromptu jam sessions.

Rollins' first album after this break, aptly titled The Bridge, was one of the most highly anticipated discs of the early '60s and showed him playing with extreme confidence and newfound rhythmic dexterity. Soon after, Rollins embraced the free-jazz sound, employing two ex-members of Ornette Coleman's band, drummer Billy Higgins and trumpet player Don Cherry. While many of this period's releases were excellent, Rollins eventually tired of the avant-garde. By 1965, when Coltrane was creating his groundbreaking opus Ascension, Rollins was laying down the pop-minded score to the film Alfie. Rollins never seemed entirely comfortable in the free-jazz scene, and, after taking another break in the early '70s to study meditation techniques, he returned to playing in the hard bop style he'd perfected. Throughout the next three decades he recorded sporadically, most famously guesting on the Rolling Stones' "Waiting on Friend" in 1981.

If his legacy consisted solely of his discography, Rollins would still garner a prominent place in the pantheon of jazz history. But he has always been best known for his live performances, and it is here that his true importance lies. "I don't really expect a lot from the audience," Rollins says. "I think it's up to me to reach them. Now there's always a great sense, a sort of a good will or good vibrations that come from the audience, and I can feel that. Sometimes they put out something, and it's palpable, so when I get that [feeling], it inspires me to play a little more. It brings out things in me, I guess."

Details

Saturday, April 13, at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $22-55

776-1999

www.sfjazz.org

"Celebrating Sonny Rollins" takes place Sunday through Sunday, April 7-14, with concerts by Joshua Redman, Joe Lovano, Robert Stewart, David S. Ware, and others

Masonic Auditorium, 1111 California (at Taylor), S.F.

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At a show at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco just five years ago, Rollins displayed the type of magic of which he's capable. As his band began laying down a groove onstage -- bongos hiccuping an odd calypso beat, bass twanging alongside, trap drums keeping time -- Rollins unleashed a deep, guttural wail from his position backstage. Eventually he drifted out to join the other musicians, holding his horn delicately in front of him and shifting from one foot to the other, as if stepping on hot sand. Rollins then took off on a solo that never deviated from the melody, even while he inverted and stretched it to an incredible degree. His blowing deepened to a humorous speechlike pattern, bringing in brief references to other tunes, musical anecdotes, and asides. The solo seemed to go on for the length of the concert, as the bassist cast desperate glances at the weary drummer while Rollins blew on and on.

Tenorist Ware testifies to the power of such a performance, even today. "I've heard him play several times over the years," says Ware. "Let me put it this way: I heard a concert in 1999 behind the Lincoln Center, and ... I don't think I've ever heard him play better, and I've heard him play scores of times, dating back to the '60s. That particular concert, if he never played another note, for me that was something that totally went beyond words."

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