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JazzFest review: Sax legend Sonny Rollins hits right chords

The elderly get such short shrift in our youth-obsessed age, it’s almost startling to see a 76-year-old musician play with tremendous joie de vivre.Such was the case Sunday night at the Royal Theatre.

The elderly get such short shrift in our youth-obsessed age, it’s almost startling to see a 76-year-old musician play with tremendous joie de vivre.Such was the case Sunday night at the Royal Theatre. We knew saxophone legend Sonny Rollins was preaching to the converted when, after walking stiffly on stage wearing his trademark wraparound shades and white beard, he was greeted with a standing ovation before playing a single note. This was Rollins’s first concert in Victoria, and it turned out be a celebratory and often satisfying occasion.The irony for someone like this musician is that he must compete with his own legacy. Rollins is one of the true greats, having both consorted and concertized with Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and other heroes. Many contend his greatest contributions were half a century ago, when he was a hard-driving bebopper recording such landmark albums as Saxophone Colossus and Way Out West.It makes little sense to try to ascertain whether the 2007 model Rollins is as good or better than classic Rollins. It is what’s happening now that counts — at least in a concert. And happily, this musician — with a little help from his friends — is still making very fine music.Those who could afford it (top tickets went for $82.25 a pop) were doubtlessly gratified to learn Rollins still plays with gusto and power. With little ado, the amiable tenor sax-man — sporting a long, untucked shirt with a dapper red handkerchief in the pocket — started the night with Falling in Love is Wonderful. It was a brisk, even driving interpretation, benefiting especially from a precise, crisp solo delivered by the excellent trombonist Clifton Anderson. This was followed by a long exchange between Rollins and well-known drummer Steve Jordan.The saxophonist displayed a gorgeous burnished tone for the next tune, In a Sentimental Mood. The ballad provided a better chance to hear what Rollins is about these days. Initially, he interspersed the main melody with  ghostly, almost tossed off little mutterings. Later, the saxophonist played a solo that sometimes bristled with bop flourishes, and elsewhere locked  directly into the beat with swinging synchronizations.  What impresses the most about Rollins at this stage is the great warmth, intelligence and humanity with which he plays. Even when he offered  less interesting selections, such as a slightly sentimental calypso-style song, there was no denying Rollins’s obvious passion and focus. At times, he seemed to be searching something he couldn’t quite find — occasionally rippling up and down the octaves in what seemed to be the musical equivalent of scratching one’s head. Despite his age, Rollins is still a physical player who waves his instrument up and down, playing with obvious enjoyment. The woman beside me commented: “When he plays he looks  like he’s stirring a pot of gumbo.”  When letting others have the spotlight, Rollins stood quietly to one side, sometimes inclining his head as though deep in thought. The sextet included guitarist Bobby Broom who, despite astonishing fluidity and quickness, managed to make each note sound rounded and whole. Electric bassist Bob Cranshaw and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu rounded out this first-rate combo. The contribution of each musician was obvious, yet no one in this veteran bunch grandstanded or overshadowed anyone else.Note: Due to deadline considerations, the reviewer left before the concert ended.