by Josef Woodard
WITH A SONG: Any jazz year in Santa Barbara that includes a visit from the great (the greatest?) jazz musician Sonny Rollins is automatically a very good year, indeed. Rollins’s return to Campbell Hall on Sunday is this season’s most anticipated jazz evening. Added elements of meaning are attached to this concert, given his life of late.
When Rollins last played here, in 2002, his mind was still reeling from 9/11, especially because his NYC apartment of 30 years (when not in the rural-ish Germantown, NY) was mere blocks away from Ground Zero. While practicing his horn that morning, he headed downstairs to check on the commotion, not realizing just how epic said commotion was. In some sense, Rollins worked through his 9/11 experience by going ahead with a concert that same week in Boston: The results came out last year on the live album Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone).
In an interview this summer, Rollins spoke about his close encounter with the WTC tragedy and the strange aura surrounding his Boston concert. “I knew that on that concert, there was something different,” he said. “Of course, everything was different after 9/11, but the musicians were all in a different place. Everyone was shook up and the audience was, too. That occasion was reflected in the music in some kind of way.
“There was an added dimension to that concert due to what had happened. It’s always hard to codify it, but there was something extra there.” He echoes the dread and solidarity befalling NYC, and the nation, after the day of infamy. Rollins comments, “After 9/11, there was a discernible good-naturedness about people. Everybody was very friendly. They were respectful to each other and there was a certain gentility that was pronounced. I wasn’t imagining this. It was really there.
“Unfortunately, that feeling faded. I don’t know if there’s any lasting lesson from 9/11. It was like we were all on a plan of working together. And then that faded and things began to get more like they usually are. The shitty state of humanity returned.”
But the shitty state of humanity is the last thing you notice in the throes of a Rollins concert. With his big, distinctive, assured but also exploratory voice on the tenor, Rollins plays with strength of purpose but never resorts to smug recitation of riffs and technical bravura. Basically, he’s one of the last Great American musical heroes, and a chance to check him out is always top priority, especially now. Rollins was off the jazz world grid in recent years, taking time out to nurse his ailing wife, Lucille, who passed away two years ago. Subsequently, Rollins rejoined the musical stream of concerts, festivals, and recording, thankfully for us. At 76, he has just started his own label, Doxie Records, and has recorded a fine new studio album, Sonny, Please. But the live item is served up fresh: that’s the beauty of jazz, generally, and Rollins, specifically.
SMART-BOMB AMERICANA: Let us now praise our reluctant alt-country heroes and heroines. Last week, Steve Earle brought his guitar and his wife, talent-deserving-wider-recognition Allison Moorer, to Campbell Hall, for a memorable three-hour happening. For extra spice, Moorer’s gifted sister, Shelby Lynne, joined in on a tune. In unplugged mode, Earle didn’t so much blow the roof off the joint as he crawled up into the rafters and hearts and minds and went to work, as only he can. Earle is part of an elite fifty-something group of smart-bomb Americana musicians in the country-rocker-folkie gray zone. Lucinda Williams resides there, too. She hasn’t been a stranger hereabouts, after her fun (if tipsy) Gainey show, followed by opening slots for male icons — Willie Nelson, the Gram Parsons Bowl tribute, George Jones, and John Fogerty. Catch her in a well-deserved headlining slot, Friday at the agreeably funky Ventura Theatre. (Got e? firstname.lastname@example.org.)