Freedom Suite Revisited
Things were tense at the time of Freedom Suite ’s release, and one can perhaps understand the forces that made Keepnews soften Rollins’ verbal argument. What Rollins was saying, that African Americans represented the essence of American culture but were oppressed by a group (white Europeans) that had essentially seized that culture for their own purposes, was pretty radical. 1957’s Little Rock school integration incident was fresh in people’s minds, and there was more civil rights turmoil to come. Still, Keepnews’ assertion that “Freedom Suite” “is not a piece about Emmett Till, or Little Rock, or Harlem, or the peculiar local election laws of Georgia or Louisiana, no more than it is about the artistic freedom of jazz” seems designed to divert attention from Rollins’ real message, even as it reminds the reader of a laundry list of grievances about which African Americans increasingly refused to be silent. Make no mistake, “The Freedom Suite” is a cry of protest against America’s treatment of African Americans from the days of slavery right up to the day of its recording, but it is the cry of a profoundly introspective and intelligent man who expresses himself chiefly through the exercise of his art. As such, it may not appear terribly radical or groundbreaking today, but its power is clear from the fact that Rollins’ brief statement about his work was, for all intents and purposes, subject to censorship at the time of its release.
Fast forward to 2002. Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and his quartet, comprised of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and drummer Guillermo E. Brown, convene in July in Brooklyn’s Systems Two Studio to record a new version of Rollins’masterpiece. Their version honors the spirit and the basic structure of the original, but also takes chances and explores some additional territory hinted at but not explicitly examined in the original. The piece is now nearly twice its original length, but this additional length does not come from merely allowing the players to spend more time blowing within the piece’s harmonic structure. No, instead Ware builds on the piece, adding a free interlude between the first and second parts, and integrating the whole into a beautifully conceived, epic piece.
One interesting aspect is the addition of piano to the composition. Since the original was recorded with only tenor sax, bass, and drums, this already requires a serious re-imagining of the work. Shipp has already proven himself very adept at fitting into pretty much any musical situation, and he does not disappoint here. He adds a foundation that functions as a well from which all other members of the quartet draw energy and inspiration, never really drawing attention to himself, but allowing a great deal of expansiveness in Ware’s conception of the piece.
For his part, Ware utilizes a greater variety of sounds on his version of the Suite than Rollins did. Not long after the release of the original Freedom Suite Rollins retired for a time from performing and recording. When he emerged in 1962, he was playing in a much more unambiguously free style and working with a group of avant-garde musicians. It is clear that Rollins was working on incorporating a wider variety of sounds and improvisational elements usually associated with free jazz, and he had spent the time since the release of Freedom Suite reinventing his approach. Ware, whom Rollins took under his wing in his early years, makes Rollins’ free jazz leanings much more overt in his version of the piece, and I don’t doubt that the piece might have leaned much more toward free jazz had Rollins recorded it a couple of years later. That said, the piece never becomes a free jazz blowing session, at least in part because Shipp’s playing allows the others more freedom while simultaneously maintaining a clear base of operations.
The question that cannot help be asked by listeners to this piece would be “Why has Ware chosen to record Freedom Suite, and why now ?” First, the piece is a very influential piece of tenor saxophone music, and for anyone playing the instrument it is a real yardstick, much like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. To record Rollins’s composition and put one’s own stamp upon it is clearly a rite of passage for an adventurous tenor player. Branford Marsalis chose to record a version of the piece on his 2002 album Footsteps of Our Fathers. Marsalis’s version is much closer to Rollins’s version, but it is well performed and offers a combination of swing and sly wit. Still, one cannot help but feel that Ware comes closer to expressing the original feelings and content that Rollins intended, and his realization definitely adds something to the work.