ROLLINS UNLEASHED:As card-carrying jazz icons go, Sonny Rollins is something of a master of the all-important, symbiotic blend of virtuosic might and search-happy humility. Then again, to even use the m-word could be considered iffy in Rollins’s artistic outlook: He would probably say that his work continues, that mastery implies too much a finished product, a self-satisfied sense of arrival. And that’s why we love this guy, the 78-year-old tenor saxophone gentle giant for whom even an off night yields plenty of reason to go out of one’s way to be in the house. On an on night? Fuggedaboutit.
Clearly, Rollins’s return to Santa Barbara on Monday night at Campbell Hall should not be missed. Thankfully, in the last decade, Rollins has become a regular visitor to UCSB-under Arts & Lectures director Celesta Billecci‘s inspired watch-and we can compare and contrast his visits here. In 2002, he was somewhat less than top drawer, at a time when his wife and longtime manager Lucille was in ill health. Rollins took a sabbatical from the scene after her passing, but returned in hale and hearty form in the fall of 2006, in a high-profile period during which he launched his own label, Doxy Records, and put out the CD Sonny, Please.
Cut to 2009, and Rollins is riding high on the heels of last year’s acclaimed album on Doxy, Road Shows, Vol. 1. Far from being an also-ran live release, the album is a portrait of the artist as master. Culled from live tracks between 1980 and 2007, this new compilation comes closer than any other album in Rollins’s decades-deep discography to articulating what makes this musician so special. Studio recording high points aside, it is in the throes of improvisational fervor, live before a breathing audience, that Rollins really comes to life, and the album captures this.
Even just from his Campbell Hall visits, we recognize the comfortable, lived-in band format Rollins has worked with for many years now, with his nephew, the fine and understated trombonist Clifton Anderson by his side, and veteran players such as guitarist Bobby Broom (who is sounding amazing these days) and bassist Bob Cranshaw in the musical fold-and folds. They play deceptively easy-does-it favorites, including “Best Wishes,” the ballad “More Than You Know” (played as only Rollins could-big-toned and big-hearted) and “Nice Lady,” the roiling calypso which was a highlight of his 2006 Campbell Hall set. “Tenor Madness” inevitably conjures up memories, for us and for him, of the famed meeting of himself and fellow tenor sax seeker John Coltrane on that fateful tune.
In a way, Road Shows, Vol. 1 ends uncharacteristically, not with a song by his familiar band, but this time with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes, and a track from a special Carnegie Hall concert in 2007 commemorating the 50th anniversary of Rollins’s first concert in that august hall on 57th Street. “Some Enchanted Evening,” the Rogers and Hammerstein classic that was new when Rollins played it half a century ago, now sounds like an anthem, and is especially telling in Rollins’s case. More than most other jazz greats, Rollins has a remarkable batting average for making musical evenings enchanted, in N.Y.C. or Santa Barbara. Word to the wise: be there.
TELECASTER MASTERY:Speaking of mastery, of an entirely different sort, the Lobero Theatre will play host to a rare occasion this Saturday night, when one of America’s acknowledged Telecaster Masters stops by for a set. In the annals of electric guitar traditions and sub-traditions, the special domain of the twanging Telecaster is a world unto itself, and Redd Volkaert is a name and a sound to remember. Volkaert, who headlines this weekend’s “Sings Like Hell” concert (which also features singer/songwriter Kenny Edwards), sings hellaciously on his instrument, and has done so with Merle Haggard and others. Word has it that Seymour Duncan, himself a fine Tele picker and deep-dish aficionado of Telecaster lore, may sit in. (Got e? firstname.lastname@example.org.)