Sonny Rollins

The Freelance Years: The Complete Riverside and Contemporary Recordings

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Picking up only ten days after Fantasy's Complete Prestige Recordings box leaves off, these five discs run through one of Rollins' most fertile (some insist, the most fertile) periods. Not only are Rollins' Riverside and Contemporary sessions as a leader and sideman collected in toto; Fantasy also includes three tracks recorded for Period in 1957, which can finally be heard within the context of Rollins' late-'50s hot streak. The box kicks off at the end of 1956 with almost all of Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners album, where Rollins alternates with alto saxophonist Ernie Henry. Then comes a quantum leap in inspiration, Way Out West, which is just bursting with invention and wry humor as well as cyclical references to previously played tunes; it relies only upon bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne for support without needing anything more. Four tracks from Kenny Dorham's Jazz Contrasts find Rollins taking a subdued or conventionally frenetic bop backseat, while The Sound of Sonny approaches Way Out West's level as Rollins operates with piano trio backing and alone. Sonny appears only in flashes on Abbey Lincoln's sometimes melodramatic That's Him. Following the Period tracks, where Rollins' tone is especially grandiose in the Ben Webster tradition, Rollins, bassist Oscar Petitford, and drummer Max Roach extend themselves astonishingly well through the colossal, nearly 20-minute title track of The Freedom Suite. The odyssey concludes on the West Coast with another great session, the unquenchably swinging Sonny Rollins Meets the Contemporary Leaders -- Rollins' last before his first "retirement" -- where various combinations of sidemen provoke some especially creative playing from Sonny. All previously released alternate takes are included, but there is only one unreleased track -- a rip-roaring alternate of "You" from the Contemporary Leaders sessions -- which will drive Rollins completists entirely mad. If the budget allows, it's worth the splurge.

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