was then-25-year-old tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ second album with 32-year-old drummer Max Roach but his first with everyone else in the band: 25-year-old trumpeter Clifford Brown, 24-year-old pianist Richie Powell, and 30-year-old bassist George Morrow. It would be his last with Brown and Powell because they both died in a car crash in June 1956, two months before the album was released. A few months later Rollins would record, with Roach and Morrow, the material for the 1961 release Sonny Boy
; he also played quite a few shows in October 1956 and beyond with these two musicians and others. Rollins doesn’t talk much about Brown or Powell in his interviews, though I don’t get the sense people are too eager to ask. It’s hard to imagine: Rollins and Morrow and Brown appeared on the same album together as part of an exciting new quintet. Then Morrow and Brown died in 1956. But Rollins, against all odds, in 2023, is still alive.
Sonny Rollins, who was born in 1930 in Harlem to parents from the U.S. Virgin Islands and went to the same high school as Cam’ron and now lives in Woodstock, NY, is my favorite improviser in any genre of music. His soloing presents an unusually direct access to the experience of joy: tiny fluid cycles of melodic phrasing as in 1:27 (per Spotify) of the 1965 recording at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art of “On Green Dolphin Street” documented on 1978’s There Will Never Be Another You
, big statement jams like 1978’s “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” from the album of the same name, raw explosions of pure gusto as documented on 1957’s Live at the Village Vanguard
, inimitable and exuberant melodies as deployed in standards like “St. Thomas”—all of these point up Rollins as a consummate artist who reshapes the cultural traditions of his ancestry to reach a joyful synthesis between that which came before and that which surely is to come. But *** it, so do “Mava Mava” (1984) and “Best Wishes” (recorded live in Japan, 1986) and all the other cornball *** that got just a notch or two too exuberant for many discerning listeners. Rollins’ profoundly strong tone as a tenor saxophonist dovetails perfectly with his effortless construction of melodies on the spot insofar as both tendencies provide a shock of convivial spirit to chord progressions very receptive indeed to the project of modernizing the past and traditionalizing the future. Listening to Sonny Rollins play elicits thoughts of GOATs and lesser-thans, LeBrons and Jordans, such is the gravitational pull of his skillset and beating musical heart. It is absurd that he lacks a review entirely on this website.
On “Valse Hot,” the aching first track to [i]Plus 4[i], however, Rollins is outclassed by his friend and bandmate Clifford Brown. Though i consider Sonny Rollins my favorite improviser of all time, I consider Clifford Brown’s solo on “Valse Hot” my favorite single piece of improvisation in jazz history (though Plus 4
, a strong hard bop release, is not my favorite Rollins LP).
Unusually for one of my favorite things ever, Brown’s solo on “Valse Hot” revolves around a kind of gimmick, a repeated unusual technique or trait that presides over the entire performance like vocal hocketing does over Animal Collective’s Painting With
. That gimmick is the constant application, via a quick staggered press and release of two buttons on the trumpet, of a hiccup-y grace note pattern. The effect of all these chromatic two-note blips is the projection of idiosyncrasy, a kind of knowingly goofy and disruptive approach to melodic weave and performance that is bolstered rather than made contradictory by the Rollins-ish power of the flexible tunes through which Brown jubilantly runs. Brown feels both totally in tune with the rest of the band and in his own world, both playing by the rules and not. Though Plus 4
is a strong record in a discography full of gems (though surely stinkers as well—Rollins’ earthy force and highly attuned love for corn probably meant he was “better live”), it is this solo to which I rush to direct your attention. It begins at 2:59, per Spotify. Let me know what you think.