There was a party atmosphere in the Barbican even before Rollins and co stepped on stage, so when the 73-year-old saxophone colossus ambled on, dressed to kill and shooting from the musical hip, a huge spontaneous roar of approval went up.
There was a party atmosphere in the Barbican even before Rollins and co stepped on stage, so when the 73-year-old saxophone colossus ambled on, dressed to kill and shooting from the musical hip, a huge spontaneous roar of approval went up. Looking sharp in a black suit with embroidered upside-down saxophones on each breast, a sky-blue shirt and blue-and-white basketball boots, his silver hair and beard stylishly combed and an impenetrably black pair of wrap-around sunglasses in place, Rollins moved slowly centre stage, brandishing his sax like some oversized weapon.
Counting the band in for his own composition "HS" (dedicated to Horace Silver), he wasted no time in starting his first mammoth solo of the night, while his trombonist, Clifton Ander- son, assumed his customary role of admiring onlooker. Rollins started with a thinner tone and smaller sound than normal, but as the programme rolled on, he regained all the colossal weightiness of tone and timbre that has been his calling card for half a century.
Before long, the fascinating contradictions of Rollins's creative persona were fully on display - the slow waltz treatment of a Neapolitan song, for instance, exemplified the playfulness at the heart of his music. In all this, his rhythm section - the bassist Bob Cranshaw, the drummer Steve Jones and the percussionist Mazulu - kept up a dramatic backdrop with which to inspire their leader, while the trombonist Anderson supplied unison ensembles and mild-mannered solos that contrasted well with Rollins's torrential statements. Each selection was of such a length that just three numbers engulfed the entire first half, a rather listless "Don't Stop the Carnival" being the cue for the interval.
Sonny emerged for the second half resplendent in a red shirt and a black suit devoid of sax motifs, and quickly counted off a fast blues on which he took a marathon solo of stupendous creativity. What was so impressive was the sheer hard work put in to make it happen, Rollins lifting his game as he went along, working at each fumble to fashion a massive improvisational edifice that had the entire crowd on its feet in a standing ovation at its completion. Two more relaxed ballads followed, allowing him space to catch his breath, and then it was into a few bars of "St Thomas", Sonny interpolating a chorus of "Rule Britannia" into his brief but sparkling solo. The end. Only, this time, the crowd simply would not let him go. Looking embarrassed but pleased, he motioned to the band to play one more number, so they ran through a sprightly blues.
But the audience still wouldn't let him go, baying for more and bathing him in fully deserved adulation. Again the group delivered. At the conclusion, a visibly moved Sonny played an a cappella rendition of "There'll Always Be an England", placing touching emphasis on the final phrase as if speaking to his audience. What a moment: the greatest living jazzman thanking London for appreciating his transcendent art. We can only hope it happens many more times.