From the moment he emerged from the black folds of the Barbican's stage curtains to a rapturous ovation from the crowd, you sensed Sonny Rollins was feeling good. Not only Rollins, but his band, too. Smiles all around and an informality that disguised a very sharply arranged set: in fact, it was two sets, because Sonny was the only act on tonight. It was almost like being back in a club, except there were 2,000 people and nobody was talking.
Still, as he concluded the first set, Rollins reminisced at the mike about the joys of being back in London and the wonderful times he shared with Stan Tracey, Ronnie Scott and others.
Rollins eschewed the natty elegance of many of his previous London appearances, dressing in black save for a red kerchief dangling from his shirt's breast pocket (this became white in the second set), thus setting off his striking white hair and beard.
Without a moment's pause after he hit front stage he began the opening notes of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood". Setting the pattern for most of the evening, he allowed others of his group to take generous solos, interspersed by his own musical witticisms as a form of commentary. On this song it was his long-time bassist colleague Bob Cranshaw, who dug below the piece's texture in an extended solo, followed by another long-serving Rollins alumnus, the trombonist Clifton Anderson. Rollins then took one arching chorus of surpassing tonal quality before wrapping it up. Rollins, 77 years old this year, was definitely "on" tonight.
This mood spread quickly through his band, making the long workouts on each tune (just seven in two hours) colourful, varied and full of spirit. The guitarist Bobby Broom, often in the past a makeweight in the band, soloed with real purpose and fire when called upon, his personalised amalgam of Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and George Benson allowing him to bite into a tune's structure and extract real feeling.
Both the drummer Jerome Jennings and percussionist Kimati Dinizulu added worthwhile solos and tradings of their own. Meanwhile, Rollins, who might have paced himself on the first two tunes, let rip on the third, a typical calypso original called "Nice Lady", with one of his trademark efforts, bobbing and jigging to the front of the stage as he soloed with increasing intensity, at times doubled over, coming across like one of the performers from the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupes of the 1950s.
In the second set, Rollins redoubled his efforts to link up with London, starting with the Noël Coward waltz "Some Day I'll Find You" and later essaying a brief but heartfelt version of "The White Cliffs of Dover", although he cheekily quoted "La Marseillaise" in virtually every solo.
What was so striking, however, was the strength of his tone and the unerring logic of his playing, using the theme and variations approach that has stood him in good stead since the 1950s. On both "Change Partners" and the closing calypso he played with lucidity, lyricism and tremendous inventive drive. On the latter piece, especially, he constantly amazed with his unending creativity, but what impressed most deeply was the intense humanity of his playing, its power of communication.
This was amplified by his final, non-musical gesture: no encore, a standing ovation recalling him to the stage, for which he walked out, sunglasses off, hands aloft, and danced his appreciation to the audience before blowing copious kisses to the smitten crowd.
Over at the Royal Festival Hall, meanwhile, Jan Garbarek and his quartet emerged onto the stage to near-adulatory applause from a packed house eager to hear the music of one of the few jazz saxophonists who, due to the Nineties album Officium, has crossed over into general public consciousness. The Norwegian, tall, silver-haired and silent, smiled enigmatically to acknowledge the applause. Within seconds the music – all compositions from within the band – had started and would hardly pause for the next two hours. The musicians were suitably accomplished, and the music well-woven, but it became so seamless that nothing reached out and grabbed you by the throat. The perfect music for today?Reuse content