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Sonny Rollins at the London Jazz Festival
Sonny Rollins/Jazz Voice
Concert Review by John Fordham (The Guardian)
With a symphony-sized orchestra and a raft of singers, the Jazz Voice concert was numerically the heavyweight contender of the 2009 London Jazz festival's opening weekend. But the biggest show of the weekend featured just one man: Sonny Rollins, the unchallengeable old lion of the tenor saxophone.
When Rollins slowly took to the stage on Saturday, looking as if his knees were protesting at bearing the weight of the thundering wind pump and convoluted improviser's brain above them, he seemed closer than formerly to his almost 80 years. But that was the last sign of frailty for the next hour and three-quarters. Opening with a mixture of lustrous, long notes, scampering, fast fills and asides swapped with his partners, he then hit a rolling groove in which his double-time bursts grew more compacted and quirky, his exclamatory sounds veering from mocking wails to police-siren noises.
Someday I'll Find You had Rollins swapping phrases with trombonist Clifton Anderson, guitarist Bobby Broom and lively drummer Kobie Watkins, with the supporting group beginning to look and sound more eager and conversational. But it was the mid-show calypso, driven by a throbbing bass-drum undertow – the only hint of Rollins's apparent interest in Native American rhythms – that brought the crowd to its feet for a teasing, melodic improvisation, which felt like a finale. A blues jam and an encore on Don't Stop the Carnival closed a storming set.
The previous night's Jazz Voice concert included vocalists steeped in the improv skills Rollins celebrates (from the confiding subtleties of Sheila Jordan to the flawless sonorities of Kurt Elling) and pop, soul and world music contributors sometimes nudged out of their comfort zones by Guy Barker's constantly scene-shifting arrangements. Former 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant was balefully eloquent on She Devil, Elling and pianist Laurence Hobgood dazzling on Daydream, Sarah Jane Morris savage on Good Night God Bless, and Sheila Jordan offhandedly hip on Baltimore Oriole. The Motown finale was a noisy party piece for everyone, though Stax grooving wasn't really the otherwise versatile band's strong suit.
Later on, at Ronnie Scott's, the jewel-like glitter of Bobby Hutcherson's vibraphone playing, the taut bop of Empirical and the remarkable effects guitar of Sardinian Paolo Angeli (suggesting everything from African drumming or Moroccan castanets to fiddle solos) offered other compelling overtures to the festival on a live opening-night broadcast on Radio 3.