Siren Song

on sonny rollins in millennium park, 08/28/2008.

Sonny Rollins has always played fairly conventional forms of post-bop, but through his inventive improvisations, he has continually connected those conventions to a larger soundscape, especially the soundscape of the cosmopolitan city, where saxophone lines bristle with song quotations and noise quotations, gestures and nods and glances and invocations of a deep, polymathematical culture of ideas and feelings and sensations.

It’s a rich, rich world to get to inhabit when you listen to Sonny Rollins. Even if you don’t pick up on all the references and clues, you feel in the presence not just of a brilliant jazz conversationalist, but also of an observant, worldly, playful, genius artist and thinker.

Sonny Rollins on Williamsburg Bridge

Sonny Rollins on Williamsburg Bridge, Circa 1960

So it was the perfect setting to hear Rollins perform in Millennium Park, with the towers of downtown Chicago looming all around. Rollins, stooped over as he walked on stage, became the saxophone colossus as soon as he put lips to horn, roaring and soaring, laughing and dancing around songs.

Perhaps the best part of the show was when an ambulance or fire truck siren wailed in the distance during a quiet bass solo. Rollins, outlining the melodic framework of the song for his bassist, imitated the siren, bringing the city into the song and the song into the city.

As with Barack Obama’s speech from Denver later in the evening, it was jazz at its best: not just a representation of the modern city, but in fact both representation and the thing itself, soundtrack and soundscape mingling and merging into the democratic dream and the inhabited being of life in the American civitas.

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