The 100th Listen: “Sonny Rollins Plus 4”

By Sam Griffith

Sonny Rollin Plus Four is the lone recording made of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach quintet that is not under eithers name. Sonny Rollins, who played tenor saxophone in their group before blossoming into one of the most popular/emulated musicians on the 1950s, is the “official” leader of the recording. However, many of the albums highlights come from Clifford’s effortlessly elegant trumpet playing.

Highlights

Brown’s trumpet playing and Roach’s drumming. This recording leaves little doubt Brown and Roach were jazz superstars.  Brown’s trumpet playing is stellar on all accounts. Perhaps Brown’s improvisational concept (be-bop inspired eighth-note lines, beautiful melodic phrases, playing with a general sense of “hope”) is more in-line with recording than Rollins (thematic development, syncopation and angular rhythms, originality) thus Brown seems to outshine Rollins on almost every track.

Brown’s improvisation on Pent-Up House is not only the most memorable moment on this recording, but is one of his all-time best on recording. This solo is an absolute classic; a beautiful approach to creating spontaneous melodies over a relatively simple harmonic structure.  Brown’s ability to connect melodic ideas is amazing. One idea flows smoothly into the next. His 6 chorus trot through Pent-Up House is a brilliant example of this.

While Brown’s improvisations provide the memorable moments on this recording, Roach’s drumming consistently satisfies on several accounts: the form is beautiful marked; his ride cymbal playing is fantastic; and his playing behind the melodies and soloists is awesome. Roach is the engine that makes this group go.

Aspiring jazz drummers can learn a lot from his playing here, specifically how he drives the tempo and groove through his ride cymbal. Furthermore, Roach does a beautiful job of being active without overwhelming the soloists. Finally, his communication and interaction with Powell’s piano is fantastic. There are several great moments when the two connect while accompanying behind the horn soloists. While Brown and Roach help make this recording memorable, Richie Powell and Sonny Rollins each have highs and lows.

The Polarizing Richie Powell

Powell’s playing on this album is bizarre. Behind soloists, Powell genuinely has a deft musical touch, finding ways to reference the melody and support the soloist effectively. On Kiss And Run and I Feel A Song Comin On Powell utilizes comping rhythms similar to those used in melody to great effect. For any jazz educators these are great tracks to show students how to balance piano comping rhythms between those that you played during the melody and generating unique figures.

As a soloist, I have no idea what Powell is doing most of the time. The liner notes credit Powell for having a strong Horace Silver influence (totally possible!). However, it frequently sounds like Powell is just killing time, playing through choruses with little attempt in direction or shape. Some of this might be attributed to the fact that every soloist was given a specific quota of choruses to play, instead of being able to tell their story in their own time.This is an interesting aspect of this recording…

Playing Exact Jazz

The primary soloists (Brown, Rollins and Powell) play the exact same number of choruses on every track. While this solution is a logical one for recording, it does seem to lead to lots of “time-killing” by Powell and, on occasion, Sonny Rollins. On Valse Hot and Pent-Up House, Powell and Rollins are each guilty of losing focus in favor of finishing out the “agreed-upon” number of choruses.  Here is the breakdown for the number of choruses by each soloist on every track:

Valse Hot –  3 Choruses each

Kiss And Run – 2 Choruses each

I Feel A Song Coming On – 1 choruse each

Count Your Blessings – Just a Rollins feature

Pent-Up House – 6 Choruses – each

Playing to an exact number of choruses has always seemed like an ideal situation despite the fact it might feel limiting. When a number has been determined, the improvising can then decided to shape their solo however they want. Although it might feel limiting, and might frustrate a soloist who is looking to generate spontaneity, it provides an exact canvas for the soloist. The best artists are not those that paint murals, create huge sculptures or write 2 hour long symphonies. They are those that can convey any story (or feeling, etc..) through any medium on any canvas.

Final Thoughts

A closer examination of the recording leaves some to be desired, but does confirm it as an essential listening for performances by Brown and Roach. Pent-Up House will probably forever remain in the jazz canon and knowing Brown’s improvisation will be of great benefit to any aspiring improviser. Sonny Rollins Plus 4 is a good listen.

The 100th Listen is dedicated to reviewing and analyzing classic jazz recordings while considering their relevance to jazz history and pedagogy. Find out more about Sam through his website – samuelgriffith.com

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