Sonny Rollins The Freelance Years: The Complete Riverside & Contemporary Recordings (Riverside/Contemporary)
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., May 19, 2000
The Freelance Years: The Complete Riverside & Contemporary Recordings (Riverside/Contemporary)As Sonny Rollins fast approaches his 70th birthday in September, he remains the one towering standard-bearer of the saxophone, with a prolific recording career spanning the entire last half of the 20th century and jaw-dropping live performances that continue to amaze audiences worldwide. Few would disagree that Rollins' most fertile period was in the mid-to-late Fifties, when he recorded such masterpieces as Saxophone Colossus and Newk's Time for Prestige and Blue Note Records, respectively. This new 5-CD, 58-track box set encompasses the music from eight LPs, some on par with Colossus, recorded between December '56 and October '58. With Riverside Records based in New York and Contemporary out in Los Angeles, Rollins was teamed with the very best musicians on both coasts. By this time, he had already established his distinctive clarion sound, his seemingly bottomless capacity for improvisatory inventions, and his unsurpassed raw blowing power. These attributes come together most convincingly on his pianoless trio dates, two of which are included here. L.A.'s Way Out West, with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelley Manne, and NYC's Freedom Suite with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach, are both crown jewels in the Rollins oeuvre. The dates that produced The Sounds of Sonny and the standards-laden Sonny Rollins Meets the Contemporary Leaders are a cut below those two masterworks but excellent nonetheless. The latter features fine work from underappreciated pianist Hampton Hawes and L.A.'s ubiquitous walking bassman Leroy Vinnegar. One of the more interesting aspects of the box is that on three of the sessions, Rollins plays sideman to leaders Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, and Abbey Lincoln -- hence the Freelance Years tag. The Monk date that appeared as Brilliant Corners is one of the pianist's most memorable, and his teaming with Rollins and Roach formed a majestic triumvirate of modern jazz royalty. Former Austin trumpeter Kenny Dorham heads the solid but unspectacular Jazz Contrasts. Dorham and Rollins are together again, this time as hired guns, on the obscure Abbey Lincoln date That's Him!, which is most remarkable, in this context, as a historical curiosity now that Ms. Lincoln is one of today's reigning jazz divas. Also included are three selections from the little-known Sonny Rollins Plays on writer Leonard Feather's short-lived Period label. Shortly after this fecund era, Rollins disappeared from the scene, only to be discovered blowing his horn on the Williamsburg Bridge over NYC's East River, but that's a story for another time ...