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With '9/11,' Rollins reminds us of music's power

Anyone who attended Sonny Rollins's memorable Sept. 15, 2001, concert at the Berklee Performance Center should be delighted to learn it was recorded -- and that an abridged CD version is being released on Tuesday, titled ''Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert."

The enormity of the attacks on New York and Washington four days earlier gave the concert an unusual emotional edginess. In my case, I was there alone because my then-girlfriend -- now wife -- had traveled to Connecticut to be with her aunt and uncle, who had lost their son in one of the World Trade Center towers. The concert producer, Fenton Hollander, says he nearly broke down onstage while making his opening announcements, a fact noticed only by his wife.

Rollins himself was there because his wife, Lucille, insisted he go on with the show. He had been in the couple's apartment blocks from ground zero when the towers fell, and was so wrung out by the experience he had nearly canceled the trip to Boston.

Instead, Rollins played an exceptionally fine concert, even by his own exacting standards. He opened with what became the album's title track, which he announced he'd first heard sung by Paul Robeson many years before. Alluding to the tune's lyrics about the fundamental, life-affirming force of song, Rollins noted this particular song's heightened relevance that week. ''I think everybody feels this way," he said.

With that, Rollins and his band -- nephew Clifton Anderson on trombone, Stephen Scott on piano, Bob Cranshaw on electric bass, Perry Wilson on drums, and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion -- began a buoyant run through the tune that set the tone for all to follow.

Rollins stated the song's theme straight a time or two and then began working variations on it. Anderson followed with a lengthy solo that was warm, mature, and melodic. Scott came next with an inventive effort that borrowed the leader's habit of quoting other songs, in this case snippets of Thelonious Monk's ''Rhythm-a-ning" and the theme from the TV show ''Jeopardy." A short Dinizulu solo led back to Rollins's saxophone, with Cranshaw and Wilson keeping the tempo energetic throughout.

The desire to limit the release to a single disc means leaving off half the actual concert. ''Global Warming" is the only one of the calypsos played to make the CD, and the only Rollins composition as well. The three other tunes included are all standards: ''A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," ''Why Was I Born?," and ''Where or When."

People come to Sonny Rollins concerts hoping for transcendent playing by Rollins himself, and that night he reached inside and delivered it. A gargantuan solo on ''Why Was I Born?" displays Rollins's improvisational genius at full throttle, backed by Cranshaw's fluidly propulsive bass line and Wilson's deft drumming.

The music is what matters most, of course. But a few extraneous details included on the CD are curiously affecting, too. The 40-plus seconds of ovations that follow both ''Why Was I Born?" and ''Where or When" document the palpable release felt by an audience able to engage with art again.

And a pair of spoken announcements by Rollins sum up what he and many in the crowd were feeling that evening.

''We must remember that music is one of the beautiful things of life," Rollins tells the crowd, ''so we have to try to keep the music alive some kind of way. And maybe music can help. I don't know. But we have to try something these days, right?"

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