In a fitting tribute to its cover subject in early January, the Village Voice called tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, 65, “the last jazz immortal.” A contemporary of John Coltrane, Rollins was frequently pitted against him by critics and fans, but both the sounds and careers of the two tenor greats–especially following Rollins’s much-publicized two-year hiatus beginning in 1959–were on vastly different tracks than the one that brought them together for 1956’s classic meeting, Tenor Madness. As the Voice asserts, Rollins suffered both the pressure to reinvent himself and numerous comparisons to the prolific Coltrane. His recorded output became less frequent and, to some, less consistent. Many assess Rollins’s classic work from 1956 to ’59–Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, A Night at the Village Vanguard, Freedom Suite–as his best, but his playing following his seclusion is equally brilliant. The gentle quartet with Jim Hall, the scalding duets with Coleman Hawkins, his work with Herbie Hancock, and the freedom-seeking efforts with Don Cherry and, later, Freddie Hubbard all bristle with excitement and innovation. His instantly recognizable full-bodied tone has delivered some of the best long-form thematic improvisations in the history of jazz. For the last two and a half decades Rollins has recorded for Milestone, and it’s this work that’s most often maligned, frequently with substantial reason: it’s often uneven and uninspired. Throughout his career Rollins has grown more and more studio shy–the live setting is considered his real stomping ground. This show is technically sold-out, but Orchestra Hall’s subscription series usually sees returned tickets surfacing around the day of the gig. It’s worth trying. Friday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan; 435-6666. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Phil Bray.