Through an ironic coincidence, last night before listening to Sonny Rollins’ gig for the 30th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival, presented by SFJAZZ in Davies Symphony Hall, I found myself reading about the musical definition of the word “tombeau.” The literal meaning of this French word is “tomb;” but in music it refers to a piece written in memory of someone who has died (not necessarily recently). The most familiar of such pieces is Maurice Ravel’s suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, which demonstrates vividly that a musical tombeau need not be mournful or lugubrious. Rather, it can serve to celebrate the life of the departed, often with exhilarating joyousness.
Two of Rollins’ selections last night were tombeaux for jazz musicians with whom Rollins had worked, Don Cherry and J. J. Johnson. Now 82, Rollins can celebrate his past colleagues by drawing on his own rich personal history. However, before a full Davies house, he made it a point that he wanted to honor these two particular musicians because they were never really recognized for their true worth during their respective lifetimes. The tombeau for Johnson was particularly notable, since Rollins worked with Johnson (who served as arranger) in his first recording sessions, made in 1949 with Babs Gonzales.
Rollins also honored a far more distant past with “Patanjali,” complier of the 196 ancient Indian sutras known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, reflecting his appreciation of the Hindu faith. Indeed, the entire concert could be called an evening of “introspection through retrospection,” including “Serenade,” based on a popular Italian tune Rollins remembered from soap operas, the standard “Once in a While,” and Rollins’ own standard, “St. Thomas.” While most of his supporting musicians were, for the most part, decidedly younger than Rollins, bassist Bob Cranshaw, with whom Rollins recorded “St. Thomas” for RCA in 1964, was still up there jamming with him.
The whole gig lasted about 90 minutes without intermission, and one could tell that this was pretty much the limit of Rollins’ energy. One could hear his age in his patter before each selection, and his intonation is not what it used to be. However, he still had full command of his repertoire of tropes through which he could weave elegant improvisations around the simplest of tunes. (Both of his tombeaux were built on relatively short and simple themes subsequently expanded through improvisation. His most frequent partner in these excursions was his guitarist, Sol Rubin.)
Rollins is truly the “grand old man” of jazz, with every possible positive connotation, making him the perfect artist for the celebration of 30 years of San Francisco Jazz Festivals.