Though he tended to coast through the middle of his performance, the way Sonny Rollins closed his mostly mainstream first set at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Tuesday made up for anything that had been lacking in the interim.
Working out on a well-worn blues, the classic "Tenor Madness," the saxophonist traded what seemed like 100 four-bar exchanges with drummer Al Foster, the perfect rhythmic foil for the very rhythm-oriented Rollins. These passages--ranging from quicksilver flurries to single notes repeatedly tagged, as if Rollins were a drummer--were of high invention, often quite complex yet executed deftly, and they swung like mad. Incredibly, Rollins rarely, if ever, played the same thing twice. It was one of those extraordinary moments of music-making for which the saxophonist is renowned, and one that provided a deep satisfaction for the listener.
Rollins opened the show on a similar level, knocking out a delightful version of the pop standard, "Dancing in the Dark," playing choruses that mixed the melody line with ear-catching ideas. As he worked, he moved, leaning forward and back, striding about the stage, holding his horn at his side and then aloft, as if toward the heavens.
After the opener, Rollins took a hiatus and let his sidemen--pianist Mark Soskin, trombonist Clifton Anderson, bassist Bob Crenshaw and Foster--have the limelight. He limited his soloing on "Autumn Nocturne," "Don't Stop the Carnival" and two others to active rephrasings of the melody, which were enlivened by Foster's enthusiastic interplay. Soskin was in good form, displaying a crisp bop-like concept on "Madness" and delivering a suitable mellow statement on the contemporary ballad, "Promise." Anderson offered his fat tone and chunky ideas on "Madness" and "Carnival," while Foster tore up "Carnival" and Crenshaw played soft tones on "Promise," backed by the horns.
Overall, Rollins, who plays the Palace tonight, showed that even on a less-than-optimal night, he has plenty of musical magic to offer.