[Sonny Rollins: The Freelance Years - The Complete Riverside & Contemporary Recordings - 5-CD box set on Riverside Records.]

Sonny Rollins' recording career began when he was still in his teens. Growing up in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, he was at ground zero for the birth of bebop, and he moved quickly from alto to tenor sax, establishing himself as a player a bit beyond his peers. At 18 he made his first recordings with Babs Gonzales, followed by a Blue Note session with Bud Powell just weeks before his 19th birthday. Playing around, he quickly developed a reputation as a promising player.

It wasn't long, though, before he was out of the scene for the first of many periods of reflection and woodshedding that have marked his career. This time it was to take a trip to Chicago where he went under the tutelage of a percussion teacher in order to expand his rhythmic conception. It was an investment of time that would pay many dividends. Rollins' unique approach to time is just one of the factors that earned him the tag of "Saxophone Colossus," but it's an important one.

Returning to New York, Rollins was a sought after commodity, spending time in Miles Davis' band and an important period in the Max Roach/ Clifford Brown Quartet. When Brown died, Rollins stayed with Roach until he began leading his own groups and recording as a leader, principally for Prestige and Blue Note. By the end of 1956, Rollins was free of contractual restraints and began a period of freelancing, recording as a leader or sideman for a variety of labels with one album deals, typically taking session money only. Producer Orin Keepnews explains that it was Rollins' sense that if he had a royalty contract, he'd always wonder if he was being cheated, so in order to keep his relationships intact he played for a single fee.

This five disc set chronicles Rollins' work for the Riverside and Contemporary labels during the period from December of 1956 to October 1958, along with some tracks recorded for Leonard Feather's Period records, now in the catalog of Fantasy Records, which also maintains the Riverside and Contemporary catalogs. Altogether there are four full albums with Rollins at the helm, including two from each label, the Period tracks, and Rollins' contributions as a sideman to three other Riverside albums for Thelonius Monk, Kenny Dorham and Abbey Lincoln.

The set opens with Rollins joining Monk for the classic recording Brilliant Corners. Also on the date were Oscar Pettiford (bass), Max Roach (drums, tympani), Clark Terry (trumpet) and Ernie Henry (alto sax). Rollins appeared on four tracks of the album, with perhaps his most notable contribution being on the title track, with its demanding 22 bar tenor line. Few, if any, players besides Sonny Rollins would have been up to the demands of Monk's challenging compositions, but Monk and Rollins had already established a strong musical relationship, and the tenor parts may well have been tailored according to Monk's familiarity with Rollins' considerable ability.

Rollins' first outing as a leader for Contemporary turned out to be one of his most definitive albums. Way Out West is universally acclaimed as a cornerstone in the Rollins discography. The trio ensemble was unusual, even daring, for the time, but it worked because of Rollins' talent and because two of the best rhythm men in the business joined him for the date. Bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne were at the top of their form, pulling down honors in jazz polls and backing the best of everyone who traveled to the west coast to record. It became a format that Rollins would turn to again and again. Way Out West extends into the second disc of the set, which includes alternate takes of four of the tracks.

Disc Two closes with another sideman stint for Rollins, this time with trumpeter Kenny Dorham on the Riverside album Jazz Contrasts. Rollins appeared on four tracks with Dorham, pianist Hank Jones and the Brilliant Corners rhythm duo of Roach and Pettiford. Dorham was a busy player, and Rollins assumed the role of smoothing out the tracks with restraint both in his backing tracks and solos.

Rollins returned to the leader's chair for The Sound Of Sonny, a June, 1957 session for Riverside. This time he used a quartet with Sonny Clark on piano, Roy Haynes on drums and Percy Heath and Paul Chambers sharing bass duties. There were two departures - Clark laid out for "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," leaving the trio of Rollins, Haynes and Chambers, and Rollins recorded alone for "It Could Happen To You." An unaccompanied tenor was another unconventional approach that Rollins would return to over the years, sometimes performing entire concerts as a solo. Sonny's next appearance was as a sideman again, this time backing vocalist Abbey Lincoln on the Riverside release That's Him!. Rollins and Kenny Dorham were gigging with Max Roach at the time and Lincoln was on her way to becoming Mrs. Max Roach, so they both appeared on the album as a favor to their friend. They were joined by Roach, pianist Wynton Kelly and bassist Paul Chambers. It was a stellar crew for a fledgling vocalist's debut album. Rollins played on eight tracks, all of which appear here, along with a pair of alternate takes. By the time Abbey's done, half of disc four has gone by, leading to the three cuts Sonny led for the Period recording Sonny Rollins Plays.

Rollins assembled an ad hoc quintet for the Period date, with Jimmy Cleveland on trumpet, Gil Coggins on piano, Wendell Marshall on bass and drummer Kenny Dennis. The recording was done the day after Rollins' famous live recording at the Village Vanguard for Blue Note and featured the first studio recording of a song he had debuted the night before, "Sonnymoon For Two," which has become a standard in the tenor sax songbook. (It should be noted that while the recordings in this box may seem like a remarkable level of output for anyone in the time allotted, Rollins was also recording for other labels, creating classic albums like Newk's Time and A Night At The Village Vanguard. The total scope of his work during this period is simply astonishing!) The other tracks recorded for the period date were the Burke/Van Huesen standard "Like Someone In Love" and Rollins' arrangement of Tchaikovsky's "Theme From Symphony No. 6 Pathetique." That's right, that Tchaikovsky.

February of 1958 found Rollins back in the Riverside studios to take the lead for another album which looms large in his catalog, and in jazz history overall. Disc 4 closes with the four tracks and an alternate take from The Freedom Suite, which extends into disc 5 for the 20 minute title track. He was back to a trio setting for this one, with Pettiford and Roach, and they opened with a set of standards before attacking "The Freedom Suite," a song composed by Rollins in response to the discrimination he faced as a black man, no matter how much fame or success his talent brought him.

The theme of the music inspired a visceral level of emotion and urgency in Rollins' play even when the pace slows to an almost dirge-like waltz that is palpable. Roach, always noteworthy as a musician with a highly developed social conscience, plays like a man determined to drum bigotry into submission. Pettiford is as rock solid as you would expect from a player of his considerable stature. Altogether, the five part suite is a landmark contribution to jazz.

The final disc closes with one more album for Contemporary, Sonny Rollins And The Contemporary Leaders. The label's top-of-the-line stars were assembled, including Barney Kessell (guitar), Hampton Hawes (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), Victor Feldman (vibes) and the drummer from the Way Out West sessions, Shelly Manne. Rollins fit right in with these stalwarts of the West Coast jazz scene, running through a set of standards and show tunes with a breathy, breezy tone. It's an excellent way to close out the box, especially after the emotional weight of The Freedom Suite.

[Pictured: Sonny Rollins and Orrin Keepnews.]

It also closed out a phase of Sonny Rollins' career. After these sessions, he toured for a bit before finding himself increasingly dissatisfied with the progress of his music and his career. Once again, Sonny Rollins fell out of the scene. He couldn't lay down his sax completely, though. Although he wasn't playing around or recording, he was soon discovered practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge, near his home in New York's Lower East Side. His hiatus lasted for two years before his triumphant return with 1961's The Bridge. It wasn't the first or the last break he would take, but it became the stuff of legend. The legend of Sonny Rollins continues. He's recently completed new sessions for Prestige and is setting off on tour again as his 70th birthday approaches this year.

Meanwhile, we have The Freelance Years box set to keep us busy. Along with five discs packed with remarkable music, there is a booklet with full track information, including session notes, a fine biographical annotation by jazz writer Zan Stewart, original album art and photographs of all of the players. This is one to have with or without the frills, though, because this music will leave no doubt that Sonny Rollins is indeed the Saxophone Colossus.

Track Lists: [ ] indicates session leaders

Disc One: [Thelonius Monk] Brilliant Corners * Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are * Bemsha Swing * Pannonica * [Sonny Rollins] I'm An Old Cowhand * Way Out West * Come, Gone * There Is No Greater Love * Wagon Wheels

Disc Two: [Sonny Rollins] Solitude * I'm An Old Cowhand (alternate) * Come, Gone (alternate) * There Is No Greater Love (take 2) * Way Out West (alternate) * [Kenny Dorham] Falling In Love With Love * My Old Flame

Disc Three: [Kenny Dorham] La Villa * I'll Remember April * [Sonny Rollins] The Last Time I Saw Paris * Just In Time * Toot, Toot, Tootsie * What Is There To Say * Dearly Beloved * Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye * Cutie * It Could Happen To You * Mangoes * Funky Hotel Blues * [Abbey Lincoln] Porgy * I Must Have That Man * When A Woman Loves A Man

Disc Four: [Abbey Lincoln] Strong Man * Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe * That's Him * My Man * Don't Explain * I Must Have That Man (take 3, alternate) * Porgy (take 1, alternate) * [Sonny Rollins] Sonnymoon For Two * Like Someone In Love * Theme From Symphony No. 6 Pathetique * Till There Was You (take 4) * Someday I'll Find You * Will You Still Be Mine? * Shadow Waltz * Till There Was You (take 3, alternate)

Disc Five: [Sonny Rollins] The Freedom Suite * I've Told Ev'ry Little Star * Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody * How High The Moon * You * I've Found A New Baby * Alone Together * The Song Is You * In The Chapel In The Moonlight * You (alternate) * I've Found A New Baby (alternate) * The Song Is You (alternate)

(C) 2000 - Shaun Dale