As 1956 wound down, Sonny Rollins was living large. He'd just recorded the monumental Saxophone Colossus and squared off with another hot young saxophonist, John Coltrane, on Tenor Madness. His records were selling and he was a consistent winner in critics' polls.
Freed from a contract with Prestige Records, Rollins was beginning a period that would come to be known as his "freelance years." This highly satisfying box set chronologically collects his ensuing two years of work for the Riverside, Contemporary and Period labels. The box includes five Rollins albums in their entirety, as well as some notable playing he did as a sideman. The best session with Rollins as leader is surely Way Out West, a concept album that boasts the man himself on the cover with a six-gun holster, 10-gallon hat--and saxophone. The record includes silly song titles like "I'm an Old Cowhand" and "Wagon Wheels," with drummer Shelly Manne clip-clopping his way through the introductions. Rollins indirectly copped many of the melodies from the cowboy movies he loved growing up. But the Western motif is merely the bait--beneath the gimmicky surface, this is one hell of a jazz record.
Another Rollins classic included is Freedom Suite. At a high point in his career but still unable to rent the apartment he wanted because of his color, Rollins was inspired to write the title track, a torrid, restless and ultimately triumphant 20-minute trio piece.
The box showcases Rollins' work as a sideman on four of the five tracks from Thelonious Monk's mind-boggling masterpiece Brilliant Corners. On tracks like "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-lues-are," Rollins' approach to playing so closely mirrors Monk's, it almost achieves the impossible task of making the idiosyncratic pianist seem normal. Also included are four great tracks from Jazz Contrasts by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, whom Art Blakey once dubbed "the uncrowned king of modern jazz."
If there's a weak link in the box, it's Abbey Lincoln's That's Him!, a sometimes awkward record that, as Rollins bluntly acknowledges in the liner notes, would never have been made if Lincoln hadn't been dating Max Roach at the time. The accompaniment is first-rate--Sonny's solo on "Strong Man" is the epitome of cool--but Lincoln was still finding herself as a singer, getting by primarily on guile and an odd charisma.
The freelance years would end with Rollins' self-imposed retirement ("to practice and write") in summer 1959. He would return in 1962 and again set the jazz world on its ear. Today, as he prepares to celebrate his 70th birthday and continues to play as strongly as ever, Sonny's got no reason to look back. But why shouldn't we?