The Freedom Suite - Sonny Rollins

Being a musician who usually plays with the trio orchestration - and having a great deal of respect for Sonny Rollins - this album has always been of particular interest to me. Playing in a trio (especially without a chordal instrument such as a piano) requires a different approach than larger groups - variety must be created by means other than simply switching to another soloist, harmony must be more sketched out by lines than chords, etc.

Tackling an extended work like this suite (clocking in at nearly 20 minutes) only magnifies some of these challenges - and really calls upon the musicians to exploit all manner of textural, dynamic and melodic variations (great and small) to keep the music interesting and engaging. It's all too easy for a trio to lapse into a sort of monotone, two-dimensional sound if the playing isn't inspired. Fortunately, the "Freedom Suite" doesn't suffer from any lack of inspiration.

As can be surmised from the title, "The Freedom Suite" has the overtones of a political statement - Sonny's commentary on the burgeoning civil rights movement. Having come from a "free jazz" background, I was initially drawn to the title of the suite for other reasons as well, being curious as to whether or not this was also indicative that some especially unique example of Rollins' playing that I'd yet to hear.

As even a cursory listen will reveal, there's nothing particularly "out" or "free" about the playing here (certainly Sonny's collaborations with Don Cherry in '63 or 1966's East Broadway Run Down are further "out"), but "Freedom Suite" is nonetheless brimming with wonderful examples of Sonny's playing during this period. A bit less fiery than the Vanguard live recordings of the previous year, but be all means worth the listen. (Several listens in fact: there's no shortage of great playing here). No matter where this album stands in the continuum of bop to free, Rollins was clearly blazing the trail in the late 50's, providing a blueprint for generations of horn-led trios to follow, a roadmap of how to work with this orchestration and integrate elements from the different stylistic camps evolving in the music at the time.

The opening theme is some is something few could pull off with the utter cool that Rollins does (Dexter Gordon maybe) - it's a potentially hokey little melody in the wrong hands. What Sonny and the band does with it alludes to "free" jazz more than explicitly embodying it's aesthetic: the theme is merely used as launching pad, albeit one that Sonny deftly refers back to with a number of clever turns of the line in his subsequent solo(s). Max Roach really does the work of several band members, using his polyrhythmic style to really work the form. In many ways, Max's playing comes off as the most "free" of the group, less constrained by the "tyranny of the bar line" and sundry post-bop conventions and cliches in general. For his part, Pettiford compliments this seamlessly by interspersing pedal tones and ostinato riffs with walking lines. Rollins can just sing above it all, and does, sailing over the shifting textures with cohesive lines that unify the whole. While all of the playing is still rooted in the post-bop vocabulary (and far from being "outside") "Freedom Suite" strikes me as more of a "shape of jazz to come" phenomenon: the way the trio is playing together - and how they're approaching the tune - is all indicative of the more adventurous ensemble playing that many would explore in the sixties. Fanning the flames of the revolution.

Sonny Rollins - The Freedom Suite (Riverside RLP 12-258)
NYC, March 7, 1958

Here's a somewhat related morsel - an interview with producer Orrin Keepnews regarding the "Freedom Suite" sessions: