Now Spinning: Sonny Rollins – Freedom Suite Plus

A quiet Monday feels like the right atmosphere for some classic jazz, and it doesn’t get more classic than Sonny Rollins. As one of the titans atop the pantheon of American jazz, Sonny Rollins career featured many high points – from 1956’s genre-defining, hard-bop classic Saxophone Colossus, to multiple, surprisingly effective comeback reinventions in the decades to follow – but it’s at least arguable that his 1958 composition, “Freedom Suite”, was both the high point of his career and one of the single most important contributions to the canon of jazz music.

Rollins, born in 1930, may have still been very young at the time of the “Freedom Suite” recording, but had more than established himself as one of the bright young voices leading the genre, both through his collaborations with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and with his young solo carer. As his young star grew, so too did his awareness of the restrictions that society placed upon him due to his race, and between his own everyday experiences as a black man in America and a news cycle dominated by Brown v Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Little Rock Nine, the emotion, anger, rage and confusion boiled over into his music. The album Freedom Suite was released in 1958, with the magnum opus title track occupying the entire first side, and featured liner notes personally written by Rollins, that read, “America is deeply rooted in Negro culture: its colloquialisms; its humor; its music. How ironic that the Negro, who more than any other people can claim America’s culture as his own, is being persecuted and repressed; that the Negro, who has exemplified the humanities in his very existence, is being rewarded with inhumanity.”

As Vinyl Me, Please explain in the liner notes of their recent reissue, that was enough to draw controversy. Despite Rollin’s prominence, the LP was pulled and soon reissued with an alternative name, cover art and, of course, liner notes. Perhaps most insultingly, the masterful title track was also demoted to Side B. As a result, original pressings of this album fetch a few hundred bucks, but there are three reissue options that allow you to hear this classic album in its original form. The Vinyl Me Please reissue certainly qualifies, and receives stellar reviews on Discogs, but is no longer directly available. This reissue, Freedom Suite & More released by Milestone in the early seventies, offers a budget option of surprising quality.

While this release was the first reissue to offer the original track sequencing, it does suffer from one glaring negative – Rollins’ original liner notes, nearly as groundbreaking and revolutionary as the music itself, were once again excluded. Detailed liner notes by jazz critic Charles Fox are interesting on a musical level, but any efforts to link Rollins’ music with the fight for equality that was core to his chief composition here, are curiously, or deliberately, completely avoided. They certainly pale in comparison to the liner notes of the Vinyl Me, Please reissue linked above. The music, however, delivers in absolute full.

“The Freedom Suite” is restored to its rightful place on Side A, and is included in full, unedited. Led by Max Roach’s inventively forceful, hyperactive drumming, the herky-jerky rhythms mirror the frustrating stop-start nature of social progress, and the music moves through several distinct themes as Rollins improvisational leads range in mood from anger and resignation to ultimately, triumphant free expression. While I’ve never heard an original pressing, and am sure it provides a significant audible upgrade, it’s impossible not to be deeply impressed by this early reissue – dead silent in the groove, with the rhythms explosive and saxophone captured with a bold, centered, ‘in-the-room’ sound.

This also differs from the original pressing with the inclusion of additional material – a second take of ‘Till There Was You’ on Side B, that feels unnecessary until you actually hear it, for Rollins could do no wrong during this time – and an extra LP – aka the ‘Plus’, with The Sound Of Sonny included in full on Sides C & D. While The Sound Of Sonny is a bit more straightforward musically, and perhaps less thrilling, with more of a focus on traditional ballads, it’s no less enjoyable, and in some ways, even more so. If the lively excitement of “Freedom Suite” got me out of bed on this Monday morning, these mellow but expertly played explorations of familiar standards eased me into a comfortable Monday routine. Sometimes extra material takes away from the enjoyment of a classic album, but given that each of these albums are represented in full, original versions (with one bonus track added to each), and at a small fraction of the cost of original pressings, this collection ends up being quite the two-for-one bargain of Sonny Rollins at his peak.

Turntable: Dual 1225
Cartridge/Stylus: Empire 2000E w/ Aftermarket Elliptical
Amplifier: Realistic STA-90
Speakers: EPI M50

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