1956 was a hell of a year for Sonny Rollins. Having already recorded a number of memorable dates for the Prestige label, both as a leader and a sideman, ’56 saw the recording of Rollins sessions that became the albums Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness, as well as Sonny Rollins Plus 4, which has been reissued as one of Prestige’s Rudy Van Gelder Remasters series.
As with the previously mentioned albums from this year, the final year that Rollins recorded for Prestige, Sonny Rollins Plus 4 is a masterful recording that shows Sonny completely coming into his own as one of the major post-bop tenor saxophonists.
Rollins’ band here is, as usual, not only solid, but capable of matching the tenor man’s inventiveness and intensity at every turn. Clifford Brown is in fine form, as is his oft-times collaborator, drummer Max Roach. Richie Powell, Bud’s younger piano-playing brother, turns in some fine work, and bassist George Morrow, another member of the Brown/Roach contingent, keeps the rhythm section bubbling along. This group of musicians worked together quite a bit in the year or so leading up to this session, and their tightness as a group is well documented here. Three months after this recording was completed Brown would be dead, derailing his iconic collaboration with Roach and cutting off one of the major trumpet voices of all time.
Three carefully chosen, not frequently heard standards are book ended by two classic Rollins compositions, “Valse Hot” and “Pent-Up House.” “Valse Hot” is just that—it is a waltz, but it feels more like an off-kilter bop burner in a standard time signature. It’s graceful and floating, but not eviscerated.
Rollins demonstrates just what Ira Gitler attempted to illustrate in his chart of influences on major tenor sax players emerging at the time. He is thoroughly indebted to Charlie Parker for his harmonic conception, though he plays not at all like Parker in the note-for-note sweepstakes. But he plays with rhythm in a manner suggestive of Lester Young, hanging in back of the phrase, then catching up with downhill momentum. His sound shows the influence of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but the sum of all this is what we have come to know and love as a pure expression of Sonny Rollins.
Among the standard songs is an interpretation of Sam Coslow’s “Kiss and Run” that is pretty quick in tempo, and allows Rollins, Brown, and Powell (in that order) to show their bop chops pretty much unadorned. The tempo ratchets up a notch with “I Feel a Song Coming On,” and Roach cooks behind the soloists like a madman. We hear the seeds of the approach that drummers like Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette would later take; though Roach never abandons the rhythm, he does plenty else as well, providing coloring and punch behind the soloists in a way that few drummers could do at the time.
In a characteristically sharp choice of melodic vehicles, Rollins also tackles “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,” the closest thing to a ballad here, though the tempo is kept at a walking pace. Rollins displays his characteristic warmth while still adding some nice twists and turns to the familiar melody.
Sonny Rollins Plus 4 is an essential recording for anyone seeking to apprehend the roots of the style that he’s continued to successfully explore for the forty years that came after. With characteristically outstanding remastered sound, it’s an essential addition to any burgeoning jazz collection.