The low-flying high priest of modern jazz, Sonny Rollins has approached his music the past 30 years or so with a safety net securely under him, playing gleefully buoyant music with musicians — some of whom have been with him for more than three decades — whose No. 1 job is to make him look good. The last living tenor sax oracle delivered a generous concert of masterful solos Tuesday, taking a nearly two-hour stroll through his usual collection of ’50s-inspired funk, ballads, standards and Caribbean flavors over steady, if unexciting, backing.
Picasso like in building a career in periods, Rollins has worked a trombone-electric bass-percussion setup for nearly two decades. And for a brief moment — when “G-Man” and the film “Saxophone Colossus” were released in 1987 — Rollins was working that format with risk, working the gap between hard bop and fusion with conviction and verve. Current lineup, with guitarist Bobby Broom settling in way under the mix, stayed in that well-hewn “G-Man” territory and kept the audience happy with percussion interludes, rich and melodic solos from trombonist Clifton Anderson and magnanimous work from Rollins.
Predictable as any Rollins show over the past 15 years, saving grace was Rollins’ improvisational sparks, his lengthy solos challenged the mind and pleased the ear, whether he was working “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” or his tribute to funk pianist Horace Silver, “H.S.” Rollins is no aggressor; he brings a Taoist perspective to the night, searching for balance and harmony between leader, accompanists, tempos and musical styles.
Considering how long he has been at this game — now 74 and recording since 1949 — Rollins is in a far different space than the other sax legend on Disney Concert Hall’s bill this season, Ornette Coleman, who has found his concept of “harmolodics” fertile improvisational ground for 35 years. In both cases, though, auds are attracted to the idea of being in the same room as the men, embracing whatever musical wisdom they might proffer rather than any particular piece of music. Both were impressive, though Rollins excelled technically as well as artistically, exhibiting astounding breath control as he pushed out one inviting stream of notes after another.
Sound was distant and echoey at first with no sense of a bottom end. As the evening wore on, Rollins at least sounded like he was in the same room as the audience, but the imbalance kept the night from being as in-your-face as Rollins music can be.