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How to be a saxophone legend, step one: When you walk onto the stage with a five-inch afro, beard and dark sunglasses, don't even introduce yourself. Just start playing and let that do the talking.
At age 79, Sonny Rollins is perhaps the greatest saxophone player around, and he proved it Thursday at the Mondavi Center in Davis. He treated the nearly full 1,800-seat Jackson Hall to an almost three-hour performance of jazz flecked with Caribbean and Latin vibes.
After finishing his opener, a 10-minute cover of Noël Coward's "Someday I'll Find You," Rollins introduced his four backing musicians: guitarist Russell Malone, percussionist Victor See-Yuen, bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Kobie Watkins.
The next song, a new one for his upcoming album next year, built a calypso-like groove on top of which Rollins soloed for the entire song. Then during the bebop-influenced "Nishi," off his latest studio album "Sonny Please," Rollins and Watkins "traded fours" (a call-and-response where each person plays for four bars) for several minutes before Watkins exploded into a Max Roach-inspired solo. This left the crowd awed and cheering loudly before the group took a 10-minute intermission.
Rollins traded his white shirt for a bright red one before the second half of the show to play his song "Why Was I Born?" which won a 2006 Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo. That tune also had traded fours between Rollins and See-Yuen, who played chimes, shakers, tambourines, triangle, wood blocks, bongos and congas throughout the night.
At this point in the show, Rollins stopped announcing song titles altogether, and the band played the last few songs with little pause. These included another song with an island-influenced groove, which the audience expected to segue into "St. Thomas," perhaps Rollins' best-known song.
Rollins soloed for what seemed like 10 minutes straight while employing some insanely difficult saxophone techniques like playing harmonic overtones, which are basically chords, as opposed to one solid note.
He borrowed licks from bebop standards written by his contemporaries and played trickling ostinatos - all the while building suspense by alluding to the melody of "St. Thomas" without actually playing it (click here to hear St. Thomas). The guitarist and bass player also took solos during which Rollins accompanied them.
The island groove gave way to a saxophone ballad that expressed a soulful sadness, before going back to the up-tempo calypso beat. Rollins commanded the audience: "Don't stop the carnival" near the end of the set, which brought the whole house to its feet. During the ensuing groove, Rollins twirled in a circle while playing a solo, drawing huge cheers.
The sax legend had even the seniors in the audience bobbing their heads, stomping their feet and getting their groove on all the way out the door, without even playing his best known songs: "St. Thomas," "Doxy" and "Oleo."
Photograph credit Michael Jackson.