First of all, this album shouldn't be confused with Sonny's 2005 recording Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert. The Without a Song reviewed here was most likely recorded in Europe circa 1963 or 1964, and features Don Cherry on trumpet, Billy Higgins on drums and Henry Grimes on bass. It is vastly superior in every imaginable way (except in terms of recording quality) to the more recent album.
Sonny Rollins always had an uneasy relationship with the jazz avant garde. It's impossible to know whether he was intrigued or intimidated by the young crop of players coming out of NYC in the early 1960s; he may have been both. Whatever he was feeling, at one point he decided to make a personal statement about the new music.
It's fascinating to hear Rollins, one of jazz's greatest organizational thinkers, working largely without guidelines or boundaries. His innate sense of thematic architecture guarantees that his long solos never lose focus or integrity. He makes one particularly striking strategic choice by encouraging a kind of Dixielandish interplay among the players. Doing this gives the music a tremendous rhythmic vitality.
Although Cherry, Grimes and Higgins all fulfill their musical responsibilities well, Without a Song is essentially a one-man show. Rollins plays in an extraordinarily discursive manner, threading together free-associative themes with a voice that remains unique.
My favorite track is “Cleo,” a brisk romp through the changes of “I Got Rhythm.” Rollins plays chorus after imaginative chorus, neither flagging technically nor resorting to boppish cliché. Cherry plays his best album solo on this track too.
Finally, there's what is clearly Sonny Rollins's strange little nod to Albert Ayler. It's a declamatory rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” played in a way that's almost identical stylistically to Ayler's various readings of the “Marseilles.” The track is only about a minute long, but it alone is worth the price of admission. It shows that Sonny Rollins, for all his Olympian status, clearly kept his ear to the ground.