JAZZ / Sound of speed: Phil Johnson reviews Sonny Rollins at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane

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The Independent Culture
The pianist Paul Bley tells a story about starting his career in New York by playing a club date with Sonny Rollins. Bley waited nervously as the leader went into a solo on the first number. Chorus after chorus went by until, after an hour, Rollins passed the tune over to Bley and left the bandstand. Bley struggled manfully to maintain the flow as it dawned on him that Rollins had not only left the stand but left the club too. Eventually, after another hour had elapsed, he returned to bring the tune, and the first set, to a tumultuous close.

Such heroic tales came to mind at the beginning of Sunday's show, when Rollins opened at full-tilt on a version of 'Falling in Love with Love' that threatened to continue all night. In fact, the solo clocked in at a modest 12 minutes but so relentless was the flow of ideas, so perfect the co- ordination of hands, mind and tenor saxophone and so strong the resulting sound, that it served as a potent reminder of what a master Rollins, at 63, still is. Playing at break-neck speed, he encapsulated 50 years of jazz tenor sax styles into a series of increasingly oblique assaults on the melody. If the rest of the performance never quite lived up to such a beginning, it was easy to forgive; we had at least seen what he could do.

Unlike his peers Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman or the later John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins has not made a music of his own. Instead, he remains, as almost the last of his line, an improviser who can improvise on pretty much anything providing he doesn't have to compose it first. He once made a convincing jazz vehicle out of 'How Are Things in Glockomorra?' and Sunday's version of his old favourite 'Tennessee Waltz' was a true classic, with Jerome Harris's country-and-western guitar, Clifton Anderson's New Orleans trombone harmonies and Rollins's own honking R&B sax making a keening lament out of the corny melody.

This was more of a true band performance than his Palladium date of last year, with the leader content to pace his efforts by letting the sidemen play too. An aggressively shrill sound balance compromised the overall effect and toward the end of the second half evidently unsettled Rollins, who, while keeping up an impeccable smile for the audience, looked daggers at both sound-crew and band. After bringing another epic solo to an end, he announced his final number in a halting, breathless voice that made him seem, at last, all too human. As if to compensate, he followed the inevitable 'St Thomas' calypso with a final shuddering coda against a thrumming crescendo from the band that interpolated a dozen quotes into a dizzying flight of fancy. He is certainly slowing up, and there were no long, unaccompanied set-pieces, but even at idling speed Rollins remains a champion and, in fellow saxophonist David Murray's phrase, the last of the hip-men.