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Toward the end of his Walton Arts Center performance — his first concert of the year and his first ever in Arkansas — tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins kicked off a song with a solo. After blowing for about a minute, he approached the microphone. When he reached it, he stopped playing and started to speak: “I used to listen to a guy on the radio named Bob Burns,” he said in a thick New York accent. “Anybody heard of him?” A few members of the audience cheered in acknowledgement. It was an offbeat reference to the native Arkansan and 1940s radio personality. “The Arkansas Traveler!” Rollins exclaimed before launching back into his tune.
The interlude summed up the playfulness and graciousness with which Rollins conducted himself all evening. During his first set, he talked about why he finally came to Arkansas: His icon Louis Jordan was from here, Rollins said, and his visit was a sort of homage. Rollins maintained a joyful air, constantly wandering — dancing almost — about the stage; he pointed at the audience while playing with one hand. Hunkering over his instrument, as he did for much of the show, he moved to the edge of the stage, lowered the sax proboscis-like, and played a few personal measures for the audience in the front row. Rare it is for a jazz musician to be such a ham, but Rollins pulled it off beautifully.
Of course, if you're Sonny Rollins you can do whatever you like. The man was being called a legend as early as 1972, when he returned from his second exile from music in a dozen years. He's been going strong ever since, and at 78 he has as much claim to the honorific now as ever. He proved it in Fayetteville.
The show opened with “Sonny, Please,” a steaming romp from his most recent studio album. Rollins's unconventional sextet — the tenor sax supplemented by trombone (Clifton Anderson, Rollins's nephew), electric bass (longtime collaborator Bob Cranshaw), acoustic guitar (Bobby Broom), drums (Kobie Watkins) and percussion (Victor See Yuen) — riffed on the song's distinctive theme for a captivating 20 minutes. A long take on Noel Coward's “Someday I'll Find You” featured a back-and-forth between Rollins and Watkins before a hotter calypso number closed out the first set.
The second set, which had four shorter songs, couldn't quite reach the fever pitch of the first, but the band really shone on a couple of tunes, most of which kept a rapid pace. Anderson pulled off several fine solos, and his trombone harmonized nicely with the Rollins's sax. See Yuen was an experimentalist; you never knew what percussive gewgaw he was going to pull from behind his table next. And though it was difficult at first to make sense of the acoustic guitar, which essentially took the place of a piano, Broom came through with some impressive soloing.
Yes, Rollins treated the audience well and his band, too. He played with his musicians, not over them, and he gave them plenty of opportunities to show their skills.
The most captivating soloist, of course, was Rollins himself. As he has throughout his career, Rollins took basic material — the Coward piece, for instance — and, through improvisation, molded it into a unique, mysterious form. He merely needs a hummable theme, such as the few opening bars of “Sonny, Don't,” to create a song of great complexity. Watching him do it in person was fascinating.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Rollins is the last of a dying breed of jazz greats, which is not exactly true — though he may be the last to take direct inspiration from bop, contemporaries such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Little Rock's own Pharoah Sanders are still playing concerts. If any of them are doing so with even half the vigor and verve Sonny Rollins showed in Fayetteville, they would be well worth seeking out. Maybe Rollins himself will put in a good word. “I want to come back to Arkansas!” he shouted at the end of the show. Here's hoping for a swift return.
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