Manhattan solo concert falls short of Rollins's spellbinding standard

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, in a rare solo format, recently kicked off the Museum of Modern Art's ``Summergarden'' series of jazz concerts, held outdoors in the museum's sculpture garden. Security guards turned away hundreds of people from the gates -- some of whom had been waiting for more than two hours to hear Rollins -- as the space had been filled for at least an hour before the concert was to begin. Those who couldn't get in crowded around the big iron gates just to hear the master saxophonist, even if they couldn't see him.

All of this was most gratifying to the jazz community, of course. But it was unfortunate that Rollins's performance did not live up to the audience's expectations. Granted, it's a challenge for any saxophonist to give an unaccompanied recital, but if anyone has the wherewithal to do it, it's Sonny Rollins. In fact, in many of his appearances with his group, he has been known to take off on some spellbinding solo flights of invention, sometimes with spectacular results.

So what went wrong at the museum?

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Rollins got off to a good start, stated some interesting ideas, and all was going well -- for a few minutes. But then, just as it seemed he was about to dig his teeth in and develop an idea, he would drop it and go off on a tangent. He continued to tease (was that his intention? -- I doubt it) this way until the audience got restless. He never settled into a groove and never really gave the fans what they wanted. They were dying for a little taste of his forte, calypso (``Play `St. Thomas!' '' somebody yelled), or at least some bop they could tap their feet to.

Finally, when it looked as though he might slip into a tempo, the audience started to clap, literally forcing him to stay in the groove, but he got out of it as soon as he could. What a disappointment -- especially from the man who is famous for taking an idea and nurturing it into something that can make you gasp with surprise and delight. Perhaps it was the setting, or the intimidation of the solo format -- or perhaps it was just an off night, best forgotten, knowing what Rollins is normally capable o f.

As far as Summergarden is concerned, it's a fine idea, and a lovely spot. It will run through August, culminating Aug. 30 with the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

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