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Sonny Rollins: The Freelance Years: The Complete Riverside and Contemporary Recordings

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illustration of Sonny Rollins

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.

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