It took six years of cajoling, but the promoting Space Agency got its wish Saturday night.
Sonny Rollins.When the tenor sax legend left the Snowbird Pavilion stage at 10:55 to close another Utah Jazz and Blues Festival, concert officials and a crowd estimated in excess of 2,000 realized the wait was worth it.
The sixtyish Rollins was in a playful mood during his 75 minutes of frenetic blowing, especially near the end of his stint. In the closing minutes many in the crowd edged toward the large stage, and Rollins obliged by moving to within feet of the swaying and dancing fans of all ages.
Rollins, whose blue bandanna on his forehead set off his silver beard and tinted glasses, has aged nicely. He obviously enjoys his work and, like late pianist Thelonious Monk, infuses his playing with subtle and sardonic humor.
"Some purists in the jazz community have criticized me for not taking everything seriously," said Rollins after the concert. "They take umbrage for me playing things like calypso, but I think it is important to have a sense of humor."
After opening Saturday's set with a spirited "Long Ago and Far Away," the quintet reverted to music that revealed Rollins' Caribbean roots, much to the delight of percussionist Victor SeeYuen and drummer Billy Drummond. Bob Cranshaw kept pace on electric bass guitar while trombonist Clifton Anderson displayed some touches of J.J. Johnson during his well-received solo work.
The self-taught Rollins was influenced as a teenager by the great Coleman Hawkins and, five decades later, Sonny says he still is. Beginning in 1946, Rollins played with all the great bop musicians of that era and, by the late 1950s, his improvisations of harmonic structures with his own freedom and imagination made him a major jazz figure. During that period, a tenor saxist from France was quoted, "Sonny Rollins fears nothing."
Except dissatisfaction with what he was doing.
Despite his self-imposed exiles (to put things together) and periodic flights from public view, Rollins is now busier than ever, with many of his U.S. appearances on college campuses. "It's nice to play for the kids. They may not know what we are doing," says Sonny with a broad smile, "but they enjoy it."
Rollins' mood quickly sobered when reminded that many of his contemporaries from the Golden Age are gone: Miles, Dizzy, Coltrane (with whom he had spirited competition when they shared tenor duties with Davis) and recently Joe Pass and Red Rodney. "I'm one of the few who is still left," he says, "and I do feel more pressure in a way. I want very much to represent my era and my friends. Of course, I have always felt an obligation to reach the public. I'm very conscious of the public."
The public Saturday night seemed disappointed that the night had to end, but enthusiastic cheering and applause could not entice Rollins back for an encore. Instead, it was a quick pack, a jump into a waiting van and a trip down the mountain for a flight to Long Island and another appearance.
Sharing the spotlight Saturday night was pianist Gene Harris, last year's headliner, who was making his third Snowbird appearance in four years. After years in Los Angeles, Harris relocated to Boise in 1977, but he promised his L.A. group that, if the opportunity arose, they would get together again. When Harris left the Ray Brown Trio three years ago, the call went out to guitarist Ron Eschte', drummer Paul Humphrey and bassist Luther Hughes. That was the roster Saturday night and the crowd, many knowing what to expect, was enthusiastically receptive from the outset. When it was mentioned he was a Snowbird favorite, Harris replied, "I've played all over the world - Russia, London, Paris, Korea, Japan - and all over the Unites States, and audiences are all the same wherever I go. Every human being understands what love is about. My music makes people feel loved."
After the performance, Harris turned north to Boise where, for the past 13 years, he has staged annual jazz festivals, this summer being no exception.
Preceding Rollins and Harris Saturday night were a couple of talented regional favorites: the Mark Chaney Quartet and the Underpaid Professors.