At the end of 1956 Sonny Rollins ended his six-year period of recording at Prestige Records, and he proceeded to record prolifically for the next two years for a variety of labels. Rather than accept the advances against royalties arrangement of his Prestige contract, Rollins opted to be paid by the session, without royalty provisions. He recorded this way for Lester Koenig at Contemporary, Orrin Keepnews at Riverside, and Alfred Lion at Blue Note, as well as recording a variety of performances, both as leader and sideman, for EmArcy, Verve, and Atlantic. This period culminated in the famous vacation from recording that found Rollins practicing nightly on the George Washington Bridge.
Sonny Rollins Volume One was the first recording that Rollins made as a leader during this 1956-1958 freelance period. Here we have the tenor saxophonist coming into his own with a first rate ensemble which includes trumpet player Donald Byrd, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Gene Ramey, and drummer Max Roach. The playing here is all outstanding, despite the relatively low-key nature of the song selections. Three of the tracks are variations on blues or standard changes. The leadoff number, “Decision” is a 13-bar head that will trip up listeners expecting normal blues changes. That leaves Rollins’ standout rendition of the show tune “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” as the ballad, and his performance is truly incredible. Equally incredible is the drum/tenor dynamic on “Sonnysphere” which lifts the track far out of the ordinary variation on “I Got Rhythm” chord changes. Roach is at the peak of his powers here, and he and Rollins are very much in tune with each other.
There is virtually no way to go wrong with a Sonny Rollins recording from this two-year period, but Sonny Rollins Volume One is especially satisfying, pairing the saxophonist as it does with such a virtuoso group of jazz stars, all of whom are in top form on this recording.