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Jillian Burt

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Sonny Rollins' 80th Birthday Party At The Sydney Opera House

Posted: 06/10/11 04:06 PM ET

A couple of years ago, while he was writing his novel Zero History, William Gibson, as Great Dismal, tweeted: "Your bleeding edge Now is always someone else's past. Someone else's 70's bellbottoms. Grasp that and start to attain atemporality. Very creative people get atemporal early on. Are relatively unimpressed by the 'now' factor, by latest things, access the whole continuum."

Brian Eno, as the first director of the live performance component of Sydney's Vivid Festival in 2009 (there are also lightworks set against buildings and in public spaces in the CBD and a set of free seminars and presentations on the business of creativity) brought a deeply atemporal edge to his programme. I remember that there was at least one lecture devoted to examining his engagement with really long-term thinking, setting brief human lifetimes against the long span of geological processes.

He talked to Time Out Sydney about how he experiences music differently than his daughters. He's from an era when records were expensive precious physical objects connected to the time of their release. His daughters have enormous digital collections. "Everything is equally present to them," he said, "so 'retro doesn't really have quite the same meaning." As music has become "cheaper than water" it's an "undifferentiated field" and people's tastes exist "all over the spectrum" and they mix and match different things. 'Uncopyable' things, including live performances and festivals, are of significance now, he said.

The third Vivid Live director, Australian Stephen Pavlovic, (the second Vivid Live was directed by Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed) is credited with having acutely tuned sensors that pick up on an artist or a cultural shift at the moment just before it becomes white hot: he brought Nirvana to Australia as their Nevermind album was going to number one in the United States. He founded a sucessful record label, Modular Recordings.

The transformative cultural moment that he's caught with his Vivid Live programme is that really old might be the new 'new.' It caught the entire sweep of a life. In the late afternoon there were toddlers chasing squares of light around the chequerboard dancefloor set in the Western Foyers of the Sydney Opera House. There were stage presentations of the children's television show Yo Gabba Gabba. There were two concerts by The Cure, one of the few bands of the punk rock era to have been recording and performing continuously since the late 1970s, and, with rock and roll now a mature artform, might be considered to be in the middle of their career. And tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins celebrated his 80th birthday onstage during the festival.

I was reacquainted with Sonny Rollins's music through 42 year old saxophonist Joshua Redman's appearance at the Melbourne International Jazz Festival in 2009. I bought his 2007 album Back East which is an homage to several saxophonists, including his father Dewey Redman, who died not long after the recording. The album's closing track is a composition Dewey Redman wrote and performs for Joshua's son. It's also several plays on the notion of East vs. West. The one Sonny Rollins album that always remains in my collection, surviving format changes in music and my moves to different cities, is his 1957 recording Way Out West, that includes Hollywood cowboy songs from the 1930s, "Wagon Wheels" and the Bing Crosby hit, "I'm An Old Cowhand." Joshua Redman recorded these songs on Back East, as well as another 'western' standard associated with Sonny Rollins, the Rodgers and Hart song, "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" from Oklahoma. In recording "Indian Song" by Wayne Shorter and "India" by John Coltrane, he chronicles his own interest in Eastern music and the embrace of the Far Eastern Buddhist philosophies and spiritual traditions of India by Coltrane, Shorter and Rollins. On the home page of Sonny Rollins's website are set lists for his current concerts in Australia, credits for the musicians playing with him, and a link to a book about yoga practitioners he's featured in.

For maybe a decade I've been reading reviews of Sonny Rollins's concerts by Garry Giddins. He says they're essential experiences, that Rollins has

"... reinvented the jazz concert, achieving a secular spirituality that, in the regal tradition of Louis Armstrong, sets as its goal pure pleasure and emotional catharsis. Change in jazz can have various meanings: rebooting its fundamental context, breaking with convention, fusing jazz with other types of music. For Rollins, it means a personal growth animated by the belief that tomorrow he will play a better solo than he has ever played before. He recently observed that one cannot improvise and think at the same time, and his entire career can be viewed as the passage to an inexpressible perfection. He has prepared his audience to expect the unexpected while anticipating at least a glimmer of that perfection."

There's a brainy, goofball edge to some jazz -- and some jazz criticism -- that always makes me wish I'd been a jazz writer for The New Yorker in the 1930s and 1940s. It's the nutty, picturesque slang that peppers the speech of the musicians, their wild, abstract nicknames for one another, punny album titles, and witty phrases from other songs dropped like punchlines into dazzlingly serious displays of technical mastery in their solos. At the end of his concert at the Sydney Opera House, Sonny Rollins received a long, exuberant standing ovation that had a hint of solemnity about it -- we'd just watched him play his heart out on his 80th birthday -- then he cracked everyone up by breaking into a few bars of "Waltzing Matilda."

My notebooks are full of wide angle observations from jazz critics I'd wish I'd been able to observe for myself. Studs Terkel listening to Duke Ellington catalogue the sweet chaos of everyday life he heard in the airshaft of the tenement building where he lived in the 1920s: "You get the full essence of Harlem in an air shaft. It's one great big loudspeaker. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear intimate gossip, you hear the janitor's dog. You smell the coffee. A wonderful thing, that smell! You hear people praying, laughing, snoring." (It became the tune, "Harlem Air Shaft.")

In the transcript of a radio interview I read online, Giddins said: "For people who grew up in the swing era, they had Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Goodman, I mean it was the circus every day."

In The Rest Is Noise, Alex Ross wrote about Charlie Parker quoting Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in "Salt Peanuts" and that: "At the height of bop" -- when Sonny Rollins started making a reputation for himself -- "electric strings of notes lashed around like downed power lines on wet pavement."

The wide angle perspective is now something I find in the Melbourne International Jazz Festival. I dream of music playlists built by smart, nuanced algorithms with a wild sense of humour that go way beyond mundane lists of genres and recommendations of what people who appear to have similar tastes as me might like. I'd like to load in the Melbourne International Jazz festival's programmes each year as instructions for terraforming a particular jazz landscape. A festival is a fixed point in space and time but an insightfully programmed festival continues to exert an after image that can influence the future. In 2009 the Melbourne International Jazz Festival explored the porous open borders of jazz. At the time Charlie Haden had ventured out to record traditional folk and country songs and the Laughing Clowns and Nels Cline had been brought in from rock and roll.

In Australia artists may construct tours from a string of festival appearances: in Sydney this year, at Vivid Live, Sonny Rollins was like a new artist in a new world, at the beginning of a new path. He went on to appear in a Melbourne International Jazz Festival reverent about the origins of innovative jazz, alongside 76 year old Ron Carter and the Sun Ra Arkestra (led by 87 year old Marshall Allen).

The only tune that Rollins introduced at his concert in Sydney was "Blue Gardenia," the theme for a film noir movie directed by Fritz Lang sung by Nat 'King' Cole. There are posters on the bus shelters at Circular Quay, on the way to the Sydney Opera House for L.A. Noire, a game that's advertising and referring to itself in the manner of a blockbuster movie. There's noir era jazz on its soundtrack from Duke Ellington, Louise Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. On a voice-over for one of the episodes of The Wire, David Simon said that the cop show and the western are timeless essential myths. Blade Runner, the defining myth of the computer era, didn't have jazz but it was noir forward shifted in time. Blade Runner prepared us for the immersive world of gaming too. On the movie's 25th anniversary Ridley Scott told Wired magazine that "the world was the story."

Rollins posted the set list for his 80th birthday concert on his Twitter timeline. The first song he performed was "Patanjali," which, when Googled was revealed as both one of his unrecorded compositions and an ancient yoga discipline. "How did yoga and spirituality affect your music?" Garry Giddins asked him in a public lecture. "I don't know how it might have affected my music -- that's for other people to decide," he replied. "It changed me as a person, though, and it gave me a more informed view of life."

It's the recognition of the value of the accumulated wisdom of the elderly and the more informed view of death in the Eastern spiritual traditions that makes it possible to truly appreciate the enduring vitality of Sonny Rollins. An individual life is set within cycles of renewal, in the natural world and within cultures and societies. There's a western anxiety about older performers: What if they die before I have the chance to see them? Is seeing them crossing a name off a checklist of 1,000 books / movies / records / concerts to see before you die? Seeing a relic rather than an artist continuing to perfect his craft?

When Leonard Cohen returned to performing in 2009, at the age of 75, he said to his audience in London: "Thank you so much. I was having a drink with my old teacher [his Zen master]. He's 102 now. He was about 97 at the time, and I poured him a drink and he clicked my glass and said 'excuse me for not dying.' I kind of feel the same way. I want to thank you not just for this evening but for the many years you've kept my songs alive, I appreciate it."

The cracks and deep crevices in his voice contrasted brilliantly with the liquid, angelic female harmonies, and a superb band, accomplished and exhaustively rehearsed. He was warm and witty and relaxed. The live recording of this concert is the finest representation of his artistry. Similarly, Sonny Rollins came onstage in Sydney bent over, and with a shuffling gait, but played with obvious delight and finesse and engagement with his band for nearly two hours.

 

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