Music: Sonny Rollins Returns to Carnegie Hall

In the introduction to his 1959 collection of essays called "The Sound of Surprise," the late Whitney Balliett, longtime jazz critic for The New Yorker, wrote that "jazz, after all, is a highly personal, lightweight form—like poetry, it is an art of surprise—that, shaken down, amounts to the blues, some unique vocal and instrumental sounds, and the limited, elusive genius of improvisation."

He might as well have been describing Sonny Rollins. At 77, and with nearly 60 years of recording experience blown out of his horn, the last living colossus of the tenor saxophone is certainly a familiar figure. It is for his ability to continually surprise, to remain an almost willfully enigmatic genius, that he is still so beloved. He stepped onto the Carnegie Hall stage Tuesday night with a pronounced limp, horn in hand—looking like a wounded pelican—and was greeted with a standing ovation. The sold-out crowd had come to see him celebrate the 50th anniversary of his trio date there that the then-27-year-old bandleader played with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis. Spotted in the audience, among other musicians, were drummers Paul Motian and Rashied Ali, saxophonists Joe Lovano and John Zorn, guitarists Russell Malone and Pat Metheny.

In 2005 a jazz specialist at the Library of Congress discovered a long-lost tape of the show (part of a trove that included a recording of pianist Thelonious Monk's quartet with saxophonist John Coltrane, taped the same night). The discovery inspired Rollins to revisit the material, to play the same three songs ("Sonnymoon for Two," "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Moritat") 50 years later. It is tempting to use the historic exercise to compare the Rollins of today with the young lion who, at the time of his first Carnegie Hall gig, was arguably the best working saxophonist in jazz. (In 1959, frustrated by his own perceived limitations, he would go into his first and most famous self-imposed exile, returning two years later a more complete musician. But his star was already outshone by the game-changing Coltrane.)

While the comparison is tempting, it would probably be unfair and—for the moment—not really possible. While no longer the rising star he was when he first stepped onto the famous stage, Rollins delivered a remarkably robust performance Tuesday, backed this time by drummer Roy Haynes and bassist Christian McBride. Rollins came out swinging with his only original of the set, the now-standard "Sonnymoon for Two." As if intent on proving a point, he quickened the song's easy, bouncing tempo a bit, held one note for a good 12 bars, and threw in pithy quotes from "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Just as impressive was the 82-year-old Haynes, old enough to have played with Lester Young, another tenor saxophonist with a pretty decent reputation. His drums simmered like bacon fat when Rollins stepped back to let McBride, a 35-year-old baby, take a scene-stealing bluesy stroll. When Rollins swept back into the song, he did direct battle with Haynes, lurching forward and bucking—a wounded pelican swallowing an unusually large herring. The drummer popped back at his guttural runs. With nearly 120 years of professional experience between the two of them, the trading of blows came to resemble some battle for Olympus.

Perhaps to catch his breath, Rollins took it easier on "Some Enchanted Evening," the pretty ballad from "South Pacific." After stating the theme, he mostly decorated the edges of the song, his horn floating in and out of McBride's long, lovely solo. The three gelled perfectly for the first time at the song's close. The sound spread out into a cohesive loping, gentle groove; Rollins made a few suggestive, almost leering growls before the tune dissolved. At the top of "Moritat" (better known by its English title, "Mack the Knife"), Rollins's horn was properly sleazy. The theme out of the way, Ornette Coleman's influence on Rollins suggested itself: he reached downward and inward, grousing like an argumentative goose. There was more dialogue with Haynes, and after another stunning McBride solo, the song could easily have been renamed "Mac the Gun": Haynes rat-tat-tatted toward the tune's burlesque close and another explosive standing ovation. Rollins pumped his right fist and placed his hand on his heart as he made his way off stage right.

Another 50th-anniversary gimmick. Well, so what? Rollins, who pioneered the pianoless trio in the 1950s, hasn't led one himself in many years. That's what. When he recorded the album "Way Out West" in 1957, the lack of a piano—i.e., the absence of its dominating sound and constraining chord structures—allowed Rollins's playing to become much more adventurous, challenging and invigorating. Later that year he released the live album "A Night at the Village Vanguard," with bassist Wilbur Ware and drummer Elvin Jones, the recording that most directly hints at what the Carnegie Hall tapes might sound like. (Rollins will release the 1957 set simultaneously with Tuesday's outing on his label Doxy next spring.) "Sonnymoon for Two" appears on that intimate record, its tone a little darker, his swagger a little sexier, than it was this week. It's the sound of a brash young man finding his voice and clearly enjoying his prodigious talent. The Rollins of today seems more introspective, more interested in discussing than preaching.

And much, much more interested in calypso. For the second set Rollins re-emerged with his regular band, a sextet comprising guitar, electric bass, trombone, drums and African percussion. Having fulfilled his evening's duty as the hard bop trio pioneer—he had eaten his veggies—now it was time for dessert. The set kicked off with "Sonny, Please," the almost R&B-inflected title track off of his latest album, released last year. The deep, thrumming groove hinted just slightly at Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," maybe because the two tenor men are forever linked in the collective jazz consciousness. No doubt many in the audience would have preferred to hear more classic material, but the overall energy in the hall continued to mount.

The jazz critic Stanley Crouch has complained that Rollins "often resorts to banal calypso tunes." But there was nothing banal about Rollins, whose parents were from the West Indies, rollicking through "Nu-Nile." He paced the length of the stage, stood at its edge, rocked and very obviously loved what he was playing; he conveyed a sense of joy that never fully materialized during the first set. And he hogged the song to himself, not letting any of his bandmates sneak in a solo of their own. There was time for that in "Don't Stop the Carnival," the calypso that closed out the set—percussionist Kimati Dinizulu and drummer Steve Jordan each thundered through substantial solos.

But the point of the evening, of course, was that first set, the trio. "Thank you for coming out to celebrate the 50th anniversary of one day in the life of one man that you know," he told the crowd. Aw, shucks. That man is at a point in life, well past retirement age, where he can rest on his hard-won laurels and just coast on his reputation as a living legend. But instead Sonny Rollins has the audacity to go toe-to-toe with a younger version of himself, who just happened to be one of the best that ever was. How deeply satisfying that he could pull it off with such grace, poise and elder-statesman dignity. How stunning to see the genius of improvisation at play.