On September 18, Carnegie Hall was a mob scene, a space so besieged that at curtain call many ticket holders were still jammed into the will-call line. They had come to hear what would happen when tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who had just turned 77, left his comfort zone. Rollins usually plays once a year in New York City, mostly on outdoor stages, where he can blow into the open air. The amplifiers reverberate, the electric bass thuds, the trombone and conga solos often ramble and roll.

But this night was different. Rollins would be joined by the upright bass virtuoso Christian McBride, 35, and Roy Haynes, 82–the last drumming master of the bebop generation. Haynes’s drumming lit a fire under John Coltrane, and he also played with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk. In 1949 he played with Rollins on The Amazing Bud Powell: Volume 1; the last time he’d worked with Rollins was in 1958. Rollins, McBride and Haynes would perform the same three songs that Rollins had played for his Carnegie Hall debut fifty years earlier: the blues original “Sonnymoon for Two,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific and “Moritat” (better known as “Mack the Knife”). Rollins usually avoids all-star shows, but on this night he was making an exception. Library of Congress archivist Larry Applebaum had discovered a broadcast recording of Rollins’s 1957 Carnegie Hall debut, and Rollins announced his plan to release it this spring on his label, Doxy, alongside a recording of the night’s performance. And so I found myself at Carnegie Hall, where, like Samuel Beckett’s Krapp, Rollins was set to unspool the tape of his younger self.

Rollins must have felt the weight of expectations when he received a standing ovation just for showing up. He had made his debut in the room on a bill that included Chet Baker, Ray Charles and Thelonious Monk; the following year, the third-stream composer Gunther Schuller wrote “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” in which, with a canonical sweep, he invoked the names Mozart, Rembrandt and Shakespeare to convey how a solo from Saxophone Colossus‘s “Blue 7″ excelled in “thematic and structural unity” while also swinging madly. Structure and improvisation: where Apollo met Dionysus. All eyes in the jazz world were already on Rollins then, but even though critics thought he had reached a pinnacle at the tender age of 28, he just wanted to improve his chops. He also stopped playing “Blue 7.”

He soon fled to the Williamsburg Bridge for a two-year sabbatical, where he blew choruses over the East River. When he took those choruses to the public again, at the East Village’s Jazz Gallery and on the classic album The Bridge (1962), they were as spectacular as ever. But the jazz world was changing at a frenzied pace, and critical buzz, as always, was fickle. Rollins’s thematic improvisation gave way to Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” and by the end of the ’60s, Rollins would embark on another musical sabbatical and seek enlightenment in India. His recordings from the ’50s and ’60s are now cherished objects in the age of reissues, but people who saw him perform then insist that he was even more spectacular when the tape decks weren’t rolling. To be at the Five Spot at the right time and the right place was a jazz fetishist’s very heaven.

More recent Rollins performances have had their own revelations. One night in 2000, on the second set of a gig at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Manhattan, he was playing an up-tempo version of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful.” At one point, the conga and piano dropped out, and an already strong performance became incendiary. Once Rollins had only bass and drums behind him, all the splendors Schuller venerated in print in 1958 were present onstage: the tone was enormous, thick, emotive, raw, swinging and alive. It seemed like it could go on forever. Last year at Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park, after he’d bid the audience farewell following a pedestrian performance, Rollins unleashed a cadenza that brought him to a point beyond euphoria, and people who had gotten up to leave stood and gawked. When we weren’t expecting the sublime, we got it–and that was the point. When the moment is right, Rollins can cover the harmonic and rhythmic stratosphere like an entire orchestra.

But Rollins’s Carnegie Hall reprise was a high-stakes event that didn’t afford time for serendipitous discovery. Before the applause had even died down, the trio ripped into “Sonnymoon for Two,” but the tune’s blues, in B flat on A Night at the Village Vanguard and from the 1957 Carnegie gig, was transposed to E flat. Rollins didn’t want to go over the same chords again; he revisited a format he hadn’t played for years, but he wanted to take it someplace new. Quotations came pouring in–strands of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” were woven together with growls and grunts. The South Pacific aria “Some Enchanted Evening” had some enchanted moments. In the absence of amplifiers, Rollins’s tone was brought down to a stage whisper, and when Christian McBride played a densely layered, peripatetic solo, Sonny would emerge with one-note splashes just subtle enough to fill in the space with plaintive brass. He leaned on Richard Rodgers’s melody, sometimes with gruff emphasis, sometimes with poignant vibrato. When he stated the song’s closing intonation–“Once you have found her,/Never let her go”–he didn’t want to let go of the phrase, repeating it like a mantra as Haynes rumbled on the cymbals. When Rollins leapt to the cadenza at the end of “Moritat”–at turns plaintive and honking–the terminus of Brecht and Weill’s gleeful ditty about a serial killer became a search to reclaim territory at the scene of a youthful triumph. Rollins, who had done so much to bring the lower notes into the harmonic vocabulary of the tenor saxophone, was leaning on the higher end of the scale, striving upward. There were many pleasures in the set, but they were delicate and subtle.

Critics being critics, we found ourselves milling around the Carnegie Hall bar after the first set to debate what it all meant. How was Sonny’s tone? Were the melodic ideas sufficiently developed? How could the music possibly live up to the mountain of expectations? For twenty minutes, he had half a century of jazz to live up to. As we were looking to Sonny for some sort of deliverance, I was reminded of his reply, in last month’s Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire, when he was asked what living person he most admired: “Maybe my plumber.”

By the time the second set began, Rollins was back with the electric bass, the congas, the amplification. It was a reckoning of Sonny past, present and, still, the future. The rest of us catalogue and live by our memories and box sets, our iPods, our fetishized versions of our past selves, but Sonny, who hates listening to his own recordings, lives in the perpetual present, good, bad or indifferent. It was a retrospective event for a jazz titan who avoids nostalgia. He pumped his fist in the air and, to the strains of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” assured us that he would be seeing us again, perhaps not in another fifty years but maybe in another twenty.

Rollins had taken the stage at Carnegie Hall a little over a month after the death of Max Roach on August 16, and as we were marveling at the musical splendors of fifty years ago, we could also remember Roach blazing a calypso beat under Rollins on “St. Thomas” in 1956 or telepathically matching Rollins’s phrases pulse by pulse, riding the cymbals of the musical civil rights essay “Freedom Suite” in 1958 (which Roach would follow, in 1960, with We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite). Roach’s support on Saxophone Colossus‘s “Moritat” was steady swing, with propulsive drum rolls between the choruses; when Haynes traded fours with Rollins on the same tune, the dialogue was looser, almost coy.

I talked to Rollins on the phone a week before the gig, and he told me that, although he was a Nation subscriber, he would try not to hold it against the magazine if it said something nice about him–self-criticism is integral to his work ethic–and that as far as he was concerned, Roach, along with Coltrane and Miles and so many departed compatriots and loved ones, were still with him. All he had to do, he said, was summon their memory and they were right next to him on the bandstand. Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future.

At Carnegie Hall, Rollins gave us a twenty-minute exploration of time past, but he is as fixated on time future as ever, in search of a musical ideal that no one has heard yet. When I asked him about the context of the performance–and whether he would want to perform in new settings, perhaps with a symphony orchestra–he replied, “What did that cat say? The medium is the message?” But for Rollins, Marshall McLuhan’s maxim should be reversed: the medium is not the message. It’s something that can’t be measured in an all-star reunion; whoever is onstage with him, he alone is the one who brings it with him when everything is right. After the performance, 57th Street beckoned with digital distractions unfathomable the first time Rollins played Carnegie Hall. He is still looking ahead to the next gig. As he told me when I first interviewed him a dozen years ago, “I practice all the time, and I’ll be there when the spirit comes.”