Sonny Rollins – Plus Four (1956, reissue)

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by Mark Saleski

Ever have a dream where the impossible has suddenly come true? No, I don’t mean something like you’ve won the lottery, or you finally hooked up with that special someone. No, I’m talking about the impossible. In my case, it was my guitar playing ability. For a brief moment, I could play whatever I wanted. At the time, I had been making a real attempt at internalizing jazz improvisation, and let’s just say that the going was very difficult. In the dream, I could blow over amazingly complex chord changes with ease. All of my physical and mental limitations had been removed. The notes just spilled out.

It was like flying.

Every time I listen to certain jazz players, I think about that kind of flight. They make the realtime composition that is improvisation seem deceptively simple. Intellectually, I know that a certain level of facility at this can be attained by first studying the theory and then practicing until those melodic and harmonic paths are burned in and instinctual. Good theory, until you go and do something stupid like listening to Charlie Parker. No matter what the tempo, no matter how complex the changes. Bird found a way to draw the perfect line through it all and make it seem effortless.

The same goes for Sonny Rollins. If you study records like The Bridge (with guitarist Jim Hall) or the iconic Saxophone Colossus, you’ll hear saxophone lines that are … how do I put this? … are as they were meant to be.

Plus Four, remastered in 2006 by Rudy Van Gelder, was recorded in the same time frame as Colossus (1956) and shows Rollins making it seem easy. Clocking in at a short 32 minutes and 25 seconds (pretty typical of records from back them), there is absolutely no filler here — making for one intense jazz experience.

Just listen to Sonny and Clifford Brown (trumpet) trade exquisite fours during “Kiss And Run.” Then there are the lightning runs taken on “I Feel A Song Coming On.” Sonny of course had quite a supporting cast here. Their contributions are evident throughout but are most notable on the closing “Pent-Up House.” The rhythm section of Richie Powell (piano), George Morrow (bass) and the great Max Roach (drums) swing like mad at all times. It’s no wonder that Rollins sounded so inspired.

It sounds like they were flying.

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