Last year the legendary Sonny Rollins turned 80, and decided to celebrate by having a party at New York’s Beacon Theatre. Four of the six tracks on his new Road Shows, Volume 2 were extracted from that night, and one of them made history.
There were a number of artists who played guest slots that night, and Jim Hall was once of them. Among a very few others, Hall virtually defined the role that guitars would play in jazz. He guests on Beacon opener “In A Sentimental Mood.” Hall plays the tune in his inimitable style, and it is the perfect introduction for the evening.
The smooth-swing of Hall’s guitar is one thing, but for the next track the music gets a little wilder. Among those who showed up to play “Sonneymoon” are the great bassist Christian McBride, and John Coltrane’s former drummer Roy Haynes. What truly stunned the crowd, though, was the appearance of Ornette Coleman on alto sax. Although Coleman and Rollins have known each other for well over 50 years now, this marks the first time the two have appeared onstage together. The back and forth between these two men is remarkable. Each has his own singular style, and hearing them trade off this way is simply magic.
It would be hard to top that, and to his credit, Sonny goes back to his regular band to knock out two more classic tunes. Both "I Can’t Get Started” and “Rain Check” were recorded that night at the Beacon with Roy Hargrove (trumpet), Russell Malone (guitar), Bob Crenshaw (bass), Kobie Watkins (drums), and Sammy Figueroa (percussion). Each are a fantastic example of a jazz band working at all levels.
This same outfit, minus Hargrove’s trumpet, recorded the two tracks that frame the Beacon songs on Road Shows, Volume 2. Both “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “St. Thomas” were recorded in Japan, about a month after the Beacon show. “They Say It’s Wonderful” opens the proceedings in an appropriate way, offering Sonny’s working band the chance to shine before the guest stars arrive. In closing, “St. Thomas” is also a perfect choice, as it incorporates that old showbiz cliché’: “Always leave ‘em wanting more.”
In that regard, the entire set works extremely well. It never ceases to amaze me how long a man with the talent of a Sonny Rollins can remain active in music. His sax playing is as colossus (to borrow an old LP title) as ever, and his band is on fire. Here’s looking forward to his 90th bash.