Sonny Rollins wouldn’t find himself in the State Department’s jazz diplomacy picture until the comparatively mellow 1970s. In 1958, four years after Brown v. Board of Education, in the early years of America’s jazz war on the Soviets, a record like Freedom Suite was not the stuff of Jazz Ambassadorship. As A.B. Spellman, who is quoted extensively in Ka-ching regarding U.S. jazz policy, says in an NPR interview, part of a series about building a basic jazz library, Rollins here, in a tenor sax-bass-drums trio, is “trying to make a statement about the freedom of his people and about his own musical freedom as well.” Spellman adds, “It’s one of the very first extended compositions for the tenor saxophone. . . . It is the kind of piece that is so well-composed in its improvisation that you cannot tell where the writing starts and the playing ends.”
Unfortunately, the incongruous reverse side of the record, with interpretations of standards like “Till There Was You” from The Music Man, vitiates the disc’s overall revolutionary import. As Bill Shoemaker notes in The Wire, Freedom Suite
is a protest jazz masterpiece, albeit one relegated to a back seat behind works by Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and even John Coltrane by some critics. There are several reasons for this. Despite being inspired by Rollins’ first-hand experience of housing discrimination in New York, it was . . . released before the Civil Rights Movement reached critical mass nationally. Shortly after its release, Rollins famously dropped out, causing the jazz press to scurry around attempting to discover which bridge he practiced on at night. And, most importantly, the sidelong trio performance . . . did not have the militant edge of pieces created just a few years later. Being coupled with a side of politically incorrect waltzes and show tunes arguably dissipated its impact.
Indeed, Rollins’ emphasis on the status quo of jazz standards was brought home, as I note in Ka-ching, when Ornette Coleman made a surprise guest appearance at Rollins’ 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theatre in 2010, the first time the two had ever shared a stage. This astounding clash of cultures—even though they’re playing a blues, it’s like two worlds colliding—can be heard here.
Yet another world collides with Rollins in David S. Ware‘s version of Freedom Suite, recorded in 2002 and unencumbered by the distractions of other material, even though the CD runs only 40 minutes. Scott Hreha in One Final Note:
Upon realizing that this envisioning of Freedom Suite is twice as long as the original, some potential listeners may assume that the extra padding comes as a result of extensive blowing between the piece’s melodic parameters. However, the opposite couldn’t be truer—Ware has endowed the suite with a beauty of epic proportions that, while it does inject a great degree of musical freedom into Rollins’ conceptual liberation, never relies on aimless meandering to achieve that goal. In fact, the suite’s four movements, added piano and classic sense of interconnectedness recall A Love Supreme as much as Rollins’ original . . .
Just as Rollins had to rein in his good humor and his propensity to quote corny standards to make a compelling statement, Ware had to be slightly less withering than usual to convey the earthiness of Rollins’ themes. His trademark exultancy prevails, but without turning the materials into scorched earth. Subsequently, he stays true to both Rollins and himself, which is the measure of a healthy sense of tradition.
Though Rollins and Ware are not generally considered overtly “political” artists, protest and exultancy, I contend, are all part of the same healthy—and, one hopes, dangerous—tradition.