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Sonny Rollins: Sonny Rollins, Volume One – 1956

Marc Davis By

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A terrific little slice of hard bop that suffers by comparison to some Rollins classics of the same period.
It's easy to like Sonny Rollins. The guy is bluesy, edgy and clever. And it almost doesn't matter which period of Rollins' career you choose. It's all pretty terrific.

But there's an unexpected down side: Because Rollins has so many fantastic recordings, listening to ones that are merely good can be a little disappointing.

That's how I feel about Sonny Rollins Volume One—the first of four recordings that Rollins made for Blue Note in 1956 and '57. It's a good record and a fun listen. It features a top-notch quintet, with Donald Byrd on trumpet, Wynton Kelly on piano, Max Roach on drums and Gene Ramey on bass.

But when you look at all the other records that Rollins made in the same period—classics like Saxophone Colossus, Way Out West, Sonny Rollins Plus 4, and Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins—well, it makes you think just a little less of this good-but-not-great Blue Note debut.

In the 1950s, Sonny Rollins was undeniably on fire. He made one great record after another, and for a time he seemed like the greatest tenor ever. Until, of course, John Coltrane blew right past him as arguably the most original saxman since Saint Charlie Parker.

So what to say about Sonny Rollins Volume One, judged on its own merits? It's a really enjoyable record. It has only five tracks, each six to ten minutes, and there's not a bad one in the bunch—four superlative bop romps and one quirky ballad, all written by Rollins (except for the ballad).

To me, Track 1, "Decision," is the best. It's a slow bluesy affair with an unusual smooth-staccato-smooth theme. Rollins builds on the theme, crafting a solo that wanders this way and that, trying out different ideas, but always feeling smoky and noir-ish. Byrd and Kelly nicely follow suit.

"Bluesnote," another Rollins original, is a more jaunty piece. Despite the title, it's actually less bluesy than the opener—a spritely, bouncy tune with a very Blue Note-ish bop flavor. Byrd is the first featured soloist, spitting out fiery phrases. Rollins sounds like an old swing tenor—maybe Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young—and Kelly again brings up the rear.

A ballad breaks up the bop-fest, and an odd choice at that: "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?" Tasteful and pleasant, it won't make anyone's best-of list, but it's a nice change of pace.

Two more Rollins originals, each nine minutes, finish the CD: "Plain Jane," a happy mid-tempo tune with another swing-like tenor solo, and finally "Sonnysphere," a fast bebop number with Rollins sounding very Bird-like, playing long, fast, exciting runs. Byrd does his Dizzy Gillespie-ish best, and the album ends in a fun way with the sax and drums trading phrases.

All in all, Sonny Rollins Volume One is a terrific little slice of hard bop. It suffers by comparison to some Rollins classics, and is arguably less memorable than even Volume Two, recorded a few months later, featuring Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. But any record with Sonny Rollins is still a pleasure, and this one definitely has its thrills.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Availability: Many copies on Amazon, new and used

Cost: Under $3 used

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