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

Robert Spencer By

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If Sonny Rollins is the King of the Tenor Saxophone, it was during the late Fifties, the period covered by this magnificent collection, that he earned his crown. He casts a long shadow on the cover of this five-disc set, and his shadow grows even longer immediately as the music starts, which Monk's treacherous tempo-shifting "Brilliant Corners," as good an example as any of both Monk's right-on off-kilter composing genius and Sonny Rollins' astounding acumen in navigating his tricky scores.

And for Sonny, that was just the beginning. This disc contains the sessions for his landmark trio album Way Out West, on which he takes a few Western chestnuts ("I'm an Old Cowhand," "Wagon Wheels") and transforms them into furious hard bop excursions, dominating the landscape with the fire and precision and sheer size of his tenor sound. Even with tongue in cheek Sonny is the fastest, fleetest, most lyrical and improvisationally inventive draw in the West.

Then there are a couple of sessions, one led by trumpeter Kenny Dorham and one by vocalist Abbey Lincoln, on which Sonny is surrounded by mere mortals but loses none of his superlative and dominating presence, while fitting seamlessly into the musical scheme of the moment.

The highlight of these five discs, however, (after "Brilliant Corners"), is "The Freedom Suite," the groundbreaking twenty-minute series of thematic excursions that Sonny recorded before twenty-minute suites were cool. What's amazing about the suite - and about his playing throughout these five discs - is the absolute control of Sonny's playing, in the moment. Without premeditation, with nothing more to serve as a map than a harmonic structure, Sonny Rollins was able to produce sheer magic, again and again. Here are five discs of that magic.


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