Sunday, 9:00 p.m. — The Arena
There’s a crazy rumor going around that Sonny Rollins just turned 81 years old.
Impossible. Can’t be.
There are times when you can see the effects of age on Sonny, who was at the very first Monterey Jazz Festival, back in 1958. When he walks, for example, or when he speaks into the Arena microphone. But not when he plays the tenor sax. When he blows into that horn — as he was the instant the vast red curtains opened on his Festival-closing show and would still be doing some two hours later — time becomes simply irrelevant.
This performance is classic Sonny. There he is with that trademark look: the brilliant red shirt, untucked; the hip shades; the snowy mad scientist afro and excellent beard. He moves from one position to another around the front of the stage, leaning further and further into his sax as he plays… and plays… and plays. These are long, jamming tunes he’s giving us — another trademark at this stage of his career. The tempos are easygoing, many of the tunes are simple, but that just gives everybody more space to stretch out and do their thing.
Sonny’s tone remains vigorous, huge and authoritative. He can still heat things up with quick spinning runs and long braying notes, guttural grunts or high-toned squeals. But check out what he does when the band takes on a slow bluesy ballad: the way he seems to wring out those sobbing phrases. Or the way he breaks style to trade spiky little morsels with guitarist Peter Bernstein. Fantastic.
Bernstein makes a great fit for this band, which also packs a percussive punch with drums and congas side-by side. Along with percussionist Sammy Figueroa, Bernstein’s full, ringing tone and overall buoyancy help keep things moving, even on those occasions — and let’s be honest, there are a few — when the open-ended tunes begin to drag. One early number starts out beautifully but completely deflates when bassist Bob Cranshaw turns in a sluggish, meandering solo. It takes a while for the energy to recover after that, but it does. How can it not? I mean, come on. It’s Sonny fucking Rollins up there, he’s barely gotten started, and he’s gonna keep this show going for as long as he can.