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Freedom Suite by Sonny Rollins

Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite has become so integrated within jazz vocabulary that its themes are immediately recognizable as he plays through its various, but connected, movements. The recording features the saxophonist in characteristic extended improvisational form over relatively uncomplicated changes. As enthusiasts have witnessed Rollins in always forceful and unpredictable form through the ensuing fifty years, he has continued his ability to delight and surprise, as when he immediately inserts an exclamatory cadenza after stating the Freedom Suite’s second movement in six-eight time. With his readily identifiable sound not to mention his imaginative improvisational excursions and witty quotes Rollins was in appropriately invigorating circumstances when accompanied by bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach without the aid of a chorded instrument to fill in the imagined harmonies or the tension-filled rests. Rollins commanded the entire suite through the force of his personality and his attitude.

That attitude was formed by the racism he experienced in New York City in the 1950’s when he was rejected for renting an apartment there for no apparent reason other than skin color, his musical reputation already on the rise. Over the course of almost twenty minutes, Rollins poured his feelings of resentment and hope into the "Freedom Suite," and in the process, he created the form of instrumental protest that Roach adopted later with his famous Freedom Now Suite. Fortunately, a half century later, both Rollins and Riverside Records founder Orrin Keepnews are still performing and producing, thereby contributing their thoughts and recollections to the re-release of Freedom Suite, now that Riverside is a part of the larger Concord Music Group. Indeed, Concord has been re-releasing an entire series of Riverside albums entitled the Keepnews Collection, which includes those by jazz legends like Bill Evans and Joe Henderson. As a result, Keepnews recalls in the Freedom Suite’s liner notes that Rollins craftily brought to the recording session an "Untitled Original." It later became the revered "Freedom Suite." Still, Keepnews hesitated to keep available the album as a protest record in the sedate 1950’s and he re-titled it Shadow Waltz. Such a stratagem allowed avoidance of controversy by overlooking the dominance of suite within the scope of the 78-rpm record: The suite filled one entire side. Furthermore, the "Shadow Waltz" track consumes but four minutes and is decidedly understated compared to the others.

Keepnews’ reminiscences provide the background for recording "There Will Never Be Another You" without Rollins. As one of the three bonus tracks on the reissued Freedom Suite, "There Will Never Be Another You" allows Pettiford to carry the melody and then to improvise for closer appreciation of this superlative rhythm section. Why wasn’t Rollins present? Keepnews reveals that the saxophonist was inexplicably late for the studio appointment although Roach and Petticord showed up as scheduled. Stalling and nervously improvising without knowing whether Rollins would appear, Keepnews asked the drummer and the bassist to record something. "There Will Never Be Another You" was the result, but it has been included as a bonus track on two reissues, Freedom Suite and Max Roach’s Deeds, Not Words.

The remainder of Freedom Suite includes the trio’s interpretations of standards. As always, Rollins makes them his own with his authoritative, personalized approach. For example, he staggers the beat from the outset of "Someday I’ll Find You," taking it at his pace though anchored by Pettiford and Roach’s solid beat mixed with the rhythmic freedom that Rollins encourages. The second chorus of improvisation then is more rhythmically straightforward while Rollins abandons melody, inserting quotes and Rollins-isms aplenty with which his voice on the saxophone has become identified. On "Will You Still Be Mine?" Rollins, even on the statement-of-the-theme first chorus, adds his own touches like loosenings of embouchure at the ends of phrases or lengthening the phrases for quickened catch-up later within the eight bars. So, even a straightforward song becomes putty for molding into his own shapes, particularly with the witty merry-go-round-like spur-of-the-moment three-four ending to which Roach and Pettiford instantly respond.

The last of Rollins’ albums on Riverside, Freedom Suite is notable for the saxophonist’s extended composition that expressed his disappointment and anger at the time. In addition, Rollins’ status as one of the leading voices in jazz a status he has retained for more than the ensuing half century.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Sonny Rollins
  • CD Title: Freedom Suite
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2008
  • Record Label: Riverside Records
  • Rating: Five Stars
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