Sonny Rollins is one of a handful of artists universally regarded as a master of the tenor saxophone. Only John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins (who put the instrument on the map back in the 1920s) outrank Rollins on the totem pole of tenor men, and many fans will offer credible arguments for why Rollins belongs at the very top of any such list. Even contemporary players like Joe Lovano and Branford Marsalis fall well short of the standard set by Hawk, Trane and Sonny–and they would be first to say so.
The phrase “silent weapons for quiet wars” reminds me, oddly, of the battle waged between Rollins and Coltrane for the top tenor spot in the 1950s. Trane, of course, had spent a formative few years working with Miles Davis, who set him up for his epochal run with Thelonious Monk in summer 1957, while Rollins had broken in as part of the Clifford Brown-Max Roach unit. After Brown’s death, Rollins hung around to record Max Roach +4, one of the best albums to come from Roach’s recorded peak, before launching his own solo career, which caught fire pretty quick. Comparing the albums recorded under their names in the 1950s, the Rollins stuff is vastly superior to Coltrane’s; this included masterpieces like Way Out West and Saxophone Colossus. It wasn’t until Coltrane began his run with Atlantic Records (documented on the appropriately-titled box set The Heavyweight Champion) that he achieved true creative parity; by the time he died in 1967, his legacy as the greatest tenor player of all time was secure.
Rollins’ career is now in its sixth decade, giving him unprecedented longevity to match a tone that reveals itself as his from the first note. His post-9/11 live album Without a Song introduced Rollins’ music to a new generation of fans, many of whom could be forgiven for thinking he is no longer among us. Thankfully, he still is, and shows no signs of slowing down as he marches toward 80. While we wait for a new album from him, we can slake our thirst for his music by reviewing some of his older, classic titles.
The Freedom Suite was recorded in March and April, 1958 for the Riverside label. Concord Records, which bought out Riverside some time back, has rereleased the album as part of the fifth series of their “Keepnews Collection”. Orrin Keepnews produced the album and helped run the label; he returns to oversee remastering an provide some “inside baseball”-type anecdotes for the liner notes. As such, the series could be viewed as analogous to Blue Note’s “RVG (for Rudy Van Gelder) Collection”. This record, like Saxophone Colossus, was recorded as a trio, with bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach, who is inexplicably labeled on the back of the CD as the trumpeter for a session with no trumpet. These two make for one of Rollins’ most sympathetic rhythm sections, and listening to them makes one appreciate the excellent job Rollins has done in picking sidemen and collaborators over the past half-century.
Assuming that the CD sequencing (bonus tracks aside) matches that of the original record, then “Freedom Suite” took up side one, running nearly 20 minutes, while “Someday I’ll Find You”, “Will You Still Be Mine?”, “Till There Was You” and “Shadow Waltz” take up side two. While the whole record makes for credible hard-bop, it is the title track that deserves the listener’s focus. Rollins was one of the first to really exploit the freedoms afforded by LP technology to play at extended lengths–the sort of thing now synonymous with Coltrane. “Freedom Suite” arrived shortly after the sublime “Blue 7”, and nearly a decade before his East Broadway Rundown record with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.
The hero of this album is Pettiford, who would be dead within two years. Pettiford was one of the top three bass players of his time, alongside Mingus and Paul Chambers, and Freedom Suite offers the best setting for appreciating his work that I’ve ever encountered. One of the three bonus tracks is a duet take of “There Will Never Be Another You” that he and Roach recorded while waiting for Rollins to arrive. It was my introduction to Pettiford’s playing, nearly 15 years ago, when it appeared as a bonus track on Roach’s Deeds Not Words album, and it still sounds fresh today. The poignancy of the title, when one considers that it was one of his last sessions, makes it the definitive Pettiford, and a key part of Roach’s recorded legacy, as well.
The Freedom Suite marked the beginning of an intensely political period in jazz music. Artists had already begun to follow Art Blakey’s lead in converting to Islam, and the civil rights movement offered the first real chance for serious expression of the African-American “situation” since “Strange Fruit” 15 years earlier. By 1960, Roach was releasing his We Insist! Freedom Now Suite for Candid, while Charles Mingus was offering the first substantive challenges to the mostly white-run music industry. This album would be a classic by any name, but its organizational concept raises it up to seminal status.