First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2008, Volume 15, #9
Written by John Metzger
Mon September 29, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
Freedom Suite might not be the best album in Sonny Rollins’ canon, but its title track remains one of the most important and influential compositions of his career. The four songs that fill the outing’s latter half — Someday I’ll Find You, Will You Still Be Mine?, Till There Was You, and Shadow Waltz — were plucked from Broadway, a standard process at the time. Although all of these cuts were delivered with an air of consummate professionalism by Rollins and his collaborators (bass player Oscar Pettiford and drummer Max Roach), they also were included primarily to fill the remaining space on Freedom Suite. After all, these selections hardly moved Rollins beyond his mammoth achievements in the preceding years. Simultaneously, though, they also served the purpose of providing a lighter counterpunch to the weightiness of the endeavor’s main attraction.
The use of art, specifically popular music, to elevate the human spirit and raise awareness about social and political injustices has a long history. Nevertheless, it waxes and wanes with the times, bubbling to the surface only during the most egregious eras of oppression. Decades before Dan Bern and Steve Earle were protesting the policies of George W. Bush, Neil Young had taken Richard Nixon to task for the Kent State massacre; Woody Guthrie had illuminated the plight of the impoverished; and Billie Holiday had conjured haunting images of Southern hangings. Even so, when Rollins unleashed Freedom Suite on the public in 1958, he had set a new course for jazz in more ways than one.
Written as a personal expression of his experiences as an African-American, Freedom Suite is an overt political statement, one which was explained by Rollins in the short quote that was included in the liner notes for the original collection. Shortly after its initial release, the album was pulled from circulation and re-titled Shadow Waltz in order to mitigate the controversy that surrounded Rollins’ composition as well as his statement. Fortunately, times have changed enough in the past 50 years to make such marketing decisions seem somewhat foolish, though after hearing some of the comments that have been made about presidential contender Barack Obama, any enlightened soul must wonder if perhaps the darkness simply has taken a more ominous position beneath the substrate of human behavior.
One of the benefits of an instrumental excursion such as Freedom Suite is that without lyrics, the underlying meaning of the work can be debated without ever achieving an answer that definitively could be defined as right or wrong. Without Rollins’ own comments about his composition, any reasonable person could have assumed that the freedom he was describing through his art was entirely in relation to the music itself. In effect, Rollins not only was seeking to liberate the African-American community from the rampant oppression that it continued to face, but he also had broken down the boundaries of jazz by pulling past and present apart in order to lay the groundwork for its future.
Each of the four movements in Freedom Suite is a variation on a theme, and these segments are utterly inseparable. Essentially, Rollins took Duke Ellington’s symphonic approach and scaled it back until it was suitable for his trio. Naturally, the result is less majestic, but the increased flexibility that Rollins was able to obtain ultimately produced something that remains considerably more intimate and urgent. Over the course of the tune’s 19-minute duration, he laced an expansive and expressive saxophone solo through the ricocheting rhythms that were supplied by Pettiford and Roach. By shifting the tempo, he contrasted moments of beauty and grace with the tune’s more turbulent segments. In hindsight, it is easy to see how the progressiveness of Rollins’ composition pointed to the works that John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman concocted in the 1960s. Half of a century later, Freedom Suite has lost none of its potency or its poignancy, and it says as much about the current state of social justice in America as it did about the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s.
Other Keepnews Collection Releases
Freedom Suite is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box