Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins — one of the last surviving legends of the golden era of jazz — has just turned 80. His hair is a burst of white, and he staggers a bit when he walks on stage.
But when he plays, he still sounds like he’s 20, and his Japanese fans can’t get enough.
Rollins is back this week on an 80th birthday tour in this nation known for its love of jazz.
It’s also a place where Rollins feels at home. Since 1963, when he first visited Japan, Rollins has studied Buddhism, yoga and meditation, and frequents the temples and bamboo forests of the ancient capital of Kyoto.
“Maybe I was Japanese in my past life,” he said from his home in Germantown, N.Y., ahead of his trip.
Rollins, who turned 80 on Sept. 7, has visited Japan more than 20 times, almost always playing to sellout crowds.
Each time, he brings the unmistakable power of his legacy, which includes collaborations with some of the biggest names in jazz — Max Roach, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
The crowd at JCB Hall in Tokyo on Monday clapped adoringly at his solos and gave him a long standing ovation after his 1 1/2-hour performance. Three other concerts in Japan were slated through Saturday.
“He was gorgeous,” said schoolteacher Shoko Tateishi, who has heard Rollins three times, as well as Chet Baker and Ron Carter. “You didn’t sense his age a bit.”
Throughout his trademark pianoless performance, with Bob Cranshaw on bass, Russell Malone on guitar, Kobie Watkins on drums and Sammy Figueroa on percussion, Rollins’ sound was full and energetic — befitting his reputation as the “saxophone colossus.”
Rollins believes people gravitate to his music because it is beyond the barriers of language or nationality.
“Jazz is a very universal music. There is no doubt about it,” he said. “When you hear jazz, there is something in it that gives you the feeling of something bigger than this particular life that we live in. That’s why jazz is such a great music.”
Rollins, who still practices daily and insists his pursuit of perfection is far from over, shrugs off getting older, although he acknowledges he is physically weaker and can’t eat as much ice cream as he used to.
He feels pretty much the same as that moment he fell in love with jazz — after hearing Fats Waller’s piano as a child.
“And so being 80 is just a number,” he said. “I know that the body is here for just a minute, but the soul is always here.”
Rollins doesn’t dwell on his past, although he is one of a handful left standing among the giants of jazz, who were so critical in defining the art form during the 1950s and 1960s.
“I am still able to play my horn. It is a blessing. It is a gift. I am not looking backward at all,” he said. “Eighty is fine.”