Back in 2008, I saw both Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman at Chicago’s free jazz festival. The price was unbeatable, but neither set was very satisfying, and I wrote what may have been the most bummed-out column I’ve submitted to this site in response to that experience.

Still, I decided to try my luck with Rollins again when he came back to town a few weeks ago. Perhaps more than any other major improviser of his era (although it’s something he has in common with a fair number of rock-era improvisers, the latter-day Jerry Garcia chief among them), Rollins is prone to Good Nights and Bad Nights. At the festival show, the second song bogged down in an overextended solo exchange between Rollins and the percussion, and it was clear we were getting a Bad Night. So it goes.

This made me a bit nervous as Rollins and company took the stage on April 9. They started up the first song. It wasn’t one I’d heard before, but like many first songs of recent Rollins sets, it was simple, upbeat, and based on a chord pattern so basic that many writers would push right past it. Rollins began by playing, and repeating, the theme. Even on a Good Night, he stays there for a while. On a Bad Night, he never gets past it.

On this night, Rollins stayed with the theme. Then he worked into a long improvisation. He played further simple riffs, then intricate, twisted phrases, then went back to the theme. He would offer one strong idea, then change course as if another, stronger idea had just overwhelmed him. For most improvisers, the underlying chords and chorus lengths of a song are like rules of grammar confining them to sentence and paragraph structures. For Rollins, on this song, and most of the others, they were like stretches of terrain passing underneath his flight path.

Another thing that happens on Good Nights is that Rollins’s risky band concept makes sense. At this show, it helped that Kobie Watkins drummed the best of anyone at the four Rollins concerts I’ve seen. He had enough rhythmic verve to match Rollins’s rhythmic and melodic verve, so that when another long sax/drum solo exchange developed it didn’t derail the set. Some elements of his band (guitarist Bobby Broom) are good in any context, while others (percussionist Victor See-Yuen) are of more questionable value. At this show, each of their contributions worked.

This was one of the first shows of Rollins’s 80th birthday tour. As a result, it wasn’t surprising that the set gradually wound down from the exciting start, and it was clear when he made his exit after six songs that there was to be no encore. After two hours (especially with Rollins doing most of the work, and with trombonist Clifton Anderson not present to give him lengthy breathers), it had been enough anyway.

This show made up for my 2008 experience. However, it still left me with one of the same thoughts I had then. It made me wonder who would be around after Rollins to play these high-stakes shows, to organize this unlikely set of players and songs into a unique, though risky, experience. Perhaps some people are – Rob Mazurek, whose Exploding Star Orchestra has appeared at a couple of those free festivals in recent years, comes through from Brazil fairly often – but it’s not clear whether they will play to as large of an audience.

Incidentally, I checked around starting the next morning for recordings of this show. None has appeared yet. It seems fitting that an 80 year old would remind me that, even in 2010, a lot of music still gets played that won’t be passed around on computers.