On the morning of September 11, 2001, Sonny Rollins was in his apartment in Greenwich Village, six blocks from the World Trade Center, when the first plane hit. He pulled out his old black-and-white TV, which he hadn’t used in years, and hooked it up just in time to see the second plane hit. He ran downstairs and out on the street, and saw the hysteria and panic first-hand. No one knew what to do exactly or where to go. Then the towers fell. Rollins sought refuge in his music. He went back upstairs and, after phoning his wife, Rollins says, “like a fool I picked up my horn and started practicing, you know, until my stomach began feeling kind of funny.” Probably not the reaction that most people would have had in the circumstances, but as Rollins says, “that’s how I’ve gotten through this life, by picking up my horn.” He had to be evacuated from Lower Manhattan the following day
He had just celebrated his 75th birthday four days before, and he was scheduled to give a concert in Boston four days later. Feeling unsteady after these traumatic events - let’s face it, everyone was feeling shaky - Rollins was considering canceling the concert, but his wife, Lucille, convinced him to go on. And there’s a record of this extraordinary evening in Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone Records, 2005).
Perhaps the music is somewhat less showy than a normal Rollins date, but the playing is excellent, with a raw edge of emotion and an enormous underlying feeling of affirmation. Playing with Rollins is Clifton Anderson (his nephew), who does some terrific soloing on trombone, Stephen Scott on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Perry Wilson on drums, and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion. The night is given mostly to standards, including the title tune, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “Why Was I Born?” and “Where or When.” Lots of questioning in the song titles, for good reason.The band stretches out on all the tunes - all are over ten minutes long - with Rollins in extraordinary form, playing with a kind of controlled ferocity. This is nowhere more evident than on his one original song on the program, the calypso number “Global Warming.” Rollins ends it with six minutes of superb, inventive blowing, everything from a joyous bound across the melody to low, rolling, growling notes. I heard him play this tune three years later at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, where he used it to close out his concert at the Masonic Auditorium. The crowd was on its feet throughout - it was impossible to stay seated - simply reveling in the sheer joy of his playing. Listen to this terrific Rollins date and you'll feel lifted up as well.