It’s been said that Sonny Rollins looks like a genie; certainly, the best of his performances, like last week’s at the Mondavi Center, exude power and mischief and the celestial aura of granted wishes. Rollins has played the tenor saxophone for more than half a century. His nickname is “the colossus”—for a while the press imposed a rivalry with John Coltrane, and Rollins is the one still standing—but his music, for all its force and sometimes-rhapsodic determination, doesn’t impose. He has a brawny sound but not a bullying one.
Onstage with trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew; guitarist Bobby Broom; bassist Bob Cranshaw, who has played with Rollins for more than 40 years; percussionist Kimati Dinizulu; and drummer Joe Corsello, Rollins alternated nonchalantly between honeyed ballads, discursive hard-bop swingers and a few of the hooky Caribbean-cadenced tunes to which he’s grown partial. The colossus was decked out in valentine-red pants and an airy black chemise, with a faint stoop, a grandpa-waddle walk and a tendency to fully enjoy himself. As if throwing off sparks, his horn sent reflected glints dancing across the auditorium’s warm wood walls. He was a charmer, and he blew a generous gale.
The set occurred during a temperate lull between last week’s rainstorms, and it seemed like an augury of perfect spring evenings to come: caressing, coyly intimate and judiciously not too hot. Its sound planed smooth by the round tones of the trombone, the muted guitar and the savory bass, the band maintained a sort of easy affinity that is impossible without meticulously ingrained musicianship.
At first they may have been warming up on the audience, but the audience—a reliable mix mostly of greybeards and eager young students—likely would have considered it a privilege even to hang around during a halfhearted rehearsal. Not that Rollins ever seems halfhearted. Before long, the band found a stride; the audience, a palpable appreciation for the players’ mutual receptiveness. Calling and responding with Anderson, or trading fours with Dinizulu, Rollins apparently had convened a master class in the art of musical conversation.
And, to widespread delight, he soloed often. He wasn’t above show-offy licks or crafty sprinkles of Near Eastern-sounding microtones, but most of what he offered was the lively, inimitable phrasing that is his signature. He had a way of letting the audience in on decisions as he made them—alighting briefly on a patch of familiar melody, floating some variation or alternate idea, letting it smolder and then carrying it out until the time was right for a new one. The music was full of confidence and generosity; it seemed freshly invented and also inevitable.
“I hope to see you in one of these lives,” Rollins told the crowd as he closed his set. “This life or the next life.” A grateful ovation was the answer.