Recording of July 2000: Sonny Rollins: The Freelance Years
Sonny Rollins, tenor sax; Clark Terry, Kenny Dorham, trumpet; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Ernie Henry, alto sax; Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Sonny Clark, Wynton Kelly, Gil Coggins, Hampton Hawes, piano; Victor Feldman, vibes; Barney Kessel, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Wendell Marshall, Leroy Vinegar, bass; Max Roach, Shelly Manne, Roy Haynes, Kenny Dennis, drums; Abbey Lincoln, vocals
Riverside 5RCD-4427-2 (5 CDs). 2000. Orrin Keepnews, Lester Koenig, Leonard Feather, original prods.; Eric Miller, compilation prod.; Dave Luke, tape transfers; Kirk Felton, remastering. AAD. TT: 5:58:42
Would that we could reclaim the glory days of hard bop, when giants walked the Earth, without returning to the nadir of legalized apartheid. Would that we were all young again in that blink of an eye before the coming of Ornette Coleman and the ascension of John Coltrane, when Sonny Rollins first hit full stride as a leader and improviser. People still yearn for those bygone days in pre-Beatles America when the second wave of boppers—a remarkable assortment of innovative African-American instrumentalists and composers—sang their freedom song at the tail end of the Jim Crow era.
The Freelance Years commemorates Rollins' arrival as a mature improviser, and complementing the glory of the music is the pristine quality of these new remasterings of the original tapes. For instance, they've reclaimed the lost Monk intro edited on to the front end of "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are" on the earlier Monk box (Complete Riverside Recordings, Riverside 22), but minus the noise and crackling.(Perhaps they found a piece of the master tape to replace a scratchy old LP transfer.)
And several remasterings down the road, sweet Jesus, we finally have a definitive rendering of the 1957 Way Out West trio session: newly revealed low-level information and reverb trails surround Rollins' horn, there are greater extension and focus to Ray Brown's bass, and a wealth of newfound details and realistic dynamics in Shelly Manne's drumming—minus the brutal digital sibilance and glare that has marred past transfers. And the enhanced sense of timbral smoothness and soundstage depth to these original masters allows you to delve even deeper into the heart of this pianoless trio's special brand of interplay, and the giddy joy of Rollins' mix of Saturday-afternoon C&W and after-midnight modern jazz. Particular pleasures are Sonny's masterful rhythmic displacements in working his way back into the head of "Way Out West" and his protean effusions on "Come, Gone," the latter inspiring Brown and Manne to swing so hard you could plotz already.
Rollins displays still greater mastery of the trio form a year later with Max Roach and Oscar Pettiford on The Freedom Suite, where his collaborators display an even more advanced feel for spontaneous orchestrations. Rollins makes one of his most profound conceptual statements in the title suite, a heady mix of blues moods and protest. Again, the transparency of these masters allows one to hear more clearly where edits of transitional themes were plugged into the spontaneously conceived sections. Takes in the context of these seminal sessions—Sonny's underrated quartet with Sonny Clarke, Percy Heath, and Roy Haynes, and his west coast super-session with Manne, Leroy Vinegar, Hampton Hawes, and Barney Kessel—shine all the more brightly, particularly on Sonny's cheeky, bravura readings of chestnuts from the Al Jolson canon, "Toot, Toot Tootsie" and "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody."
Elsewhere, Rollins' final appearances as a sideman—with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, and vocalist Abbey Lincoln—are further indications of his growing mastery. It's wonderful to hear how the saxophonist's terse melodic ideas and intervallic leaps echo and extend Monk's conception on their hilarious romp through the title track, or how he sustains the magisterial elegance of the theme to "Pannonica" through a complex weave of phrases. On the equestrian tempos of "I'll Remember April," he and Roach re-create the galloping dynamism of Brown & Roach, Inc. at their best with erstwhile sub Kenny Dorham. And Rollins' restraint, è la Lester Young, on the Lincoln session adds theatrical drama and melodic tenderness to the singer's tough-love readings of dark ballads, particularly those from the Billie Holiday songbook.
In short, The Freelance Years is a coherent, definitive snapshot of the artist as a young man, just before he left for his sabbatical on the Williamsburg Bridge, where the tenor saxophonist re-invented himself in the first of several creative reassessments that continue apace to this day.—Chip Stern