When Sonny Rollins’ contract with Prestige expired in late 1956, he went through a period of recording for several labels before beginning a three-year sabbatical in 1959. Besides Riverside and Contemporary, he also worked with Blue Note, Verve and Period during this freelance phase. During the entire period from ’54 to ’59, Rollins is like Lester Young in the ’30s: never less than excellent and often great. This complete set includes sideman appearances for Riverside, on Thelonious Monk’s monumental Brilliant Corners, Abbey Lincoln’s That’s Him and four tracks from Kenny Dorham’s Jazz Contrasts. The Rollins-led records are Way Out West, Sonny Rollins Meets the Contemporary Leaders, the additional material that appeared later on Contemporary as Alternate Takes, The Sound of Sonny, Freedom Suite and three tracks from a Period record that also features a Thad Jones group.
Brilliant Corners, which kicks things off, is one of Monk’s greatest records, featuring wonderful compositions and a truly brilliant group. Max Roach, who appears on about half of the material on The Freelance Years, teams with Oscar Pettiford or Paul Chambers, while Rollins shares the front line with either Clark Terry or the little-recorded Ernie Henry. Rollins’ contributions stand out even in these surroundings. Way Out West is another record that’s justly regarded as a classic. Rollins is so good in the trio context that you never even think about it being unusual, though, in fact, it must be seen as an important step in the liberation of the soloist from harmonic references that eventually led to Ornette Coleman. Shelley Manne’s work here, however, leaves a little to be desired: he’s not bad, but he certainly suffers in comparison to Roach. Ray Brown, on the other hand, rises to the challenge of the pianoless trio with excellent work. The other trio date, The Freedom Suite, is another masterwork. It took me a long time to adjust to the fact that, for a work that was conceived as a statement of social protest, it seems so buoyantly happy. In any case, Rollins is in great form here, utterly relaxed with the superb support of Pettiford and Roach.
Jazz Contrasts presents the underrated Dorham in a variety of settings, so it’s interesting to listen to these tracks in this context. Dorham and Rollins had a long history by the time of these sessions, and were the front line for the band that Roach formed after recovering from the death of Clifford Brown. Dorham’s approach is fascinating during this period. It’s almost as if he was trying to show he could play as fast as Brownie, and listeners who think of him as a melodic but not a high-tech trumpeter should tune into this vintage of Dorham. The Sound of Sonny actually features two Sonnys; the other being Sonny Clark, who would soon go on to be house pianist at Blue Note with a string of classic hard-bop records under his own name. Clark is in his customary excellent form, and with the added support of Roy Haynes and either Chambers or Percy Heath, this is a very solid date.
That’s Him boasts an all-star line-up featuring Rollins, Roach, Dorham, Wynton Kelly and Chambers. Lincoln sounds very passionate when she sings politically-oriented material, but she doesn’t sound convincing on love songs. She is given, like 95% of jazz singers, to a highly stylized approach that puts the song at the singer’s disposal instead of vice versa. But there are, of course, fine solos by Dorham, Rollins and Kelly on this record. The three tracks from Sonny Rollins Plays on Period have shown up on myriad reissues. The group matches Rollins’ tenor with Jimmy Cleveland’s trombone, backed by Gil Coggins, Wendell Marshall and Kenny Dennis. I used to think this session sounded flat, but it’s excellent by contemporary standards. Sonny Rollins Meets the Contemporary Leaders is an uneven date that unites Rollins with West Coasters Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel, Leroy Vinnegar and, again, Shelley Manne. Some people are crazy about this record, and its virtues include some excellent Hawes, solid walking from Vinnegar and spectacular soloing from Rollins-though the saxophonist’s playing seems to me to almost be a reaction to a rhythm section that won’t jell. Rollins swings so hard that you practically don’t notice the band-and you get the impression he was working hard not to, also.
All of Rollins’ important work, except that in Max Roach’s groups, is now available in box sets, and for young listeners who want to know what to buy first, start with the Prestige set and proceed chronologically with this one and then the Blue Note. Then try the RCA, which is wilder stuff that will be understood better if you have digested what came before. While choosing between this one and the Blue Note set is a tough call, one thing I can safely advise: don’t bother to buy any contemporary tenor sax releases until you have all of this stuff.