Magisterial, in turn lyrical and sardonic, the music on "The Freelance Years: The Complete Riverside and Contemporary Recordings" is Sonny Rollins -- and modern jazz -- at its best. Recorded from 1956-1958, the five-disc box set reissue collects what were once eight LPs, including three on which Rollins appears as a valued sideman. The whole set is remarkably consistent: The rhythm sections are tight and inventive, the tunes unexpected and the arrangements, at least on the sessions Rollins leads, delightfully informal. In his hard, but varied tone, Rollins plays solos that are logical, funny and fluent. There's only a rare misstep -- Rollins sounds uncharacteristically sentimental on Tchaikovsky's "Theme From Symphony No. 6." But that might be Tchaikovsky's fault.
Rollins gets admirable support from his rhythm sections, including drummers like Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Shelley Manne and Art Blakey. Roach sounds particularly compatible. Both he and Rollins like to nurture solos from rhythmic kernels -- short phrases that they allow to expand and unravel.
Rollins is confident in his ideas and a master of his instrument. In a single phrase of "There Is No Greater Love," he lets loose with an anxious flutter, a slurred phrase, a growl and then a couple of barked notes. He presents himself in the nakedest of contexts. There's a solo saxophone piece here, "It Could Happen to You," and duets with bassist Oscar Pettiford on the takes of "Till There Was You." "Freedom Suite," a politically significant title without obviously political musical content, and "Way Out West" are both pianoless trio dates. The latter, one of the best-recorded jazz sessions, is a favorite among audiophiles, who love it for its clean, clearly articulated sound, as well as among jazz fans, who admire Rollins' tough-minded, witty improvisations and the spare, animated backing by the bass of Ray Brown and Manne's drums. Elsewhere, Rollins plays a straight-ahead solo on "Funky Hotel Blues" and a group of rhythmically complex variations on a tune made famous by Al Jolson, "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody." No one else in modern jazz, except perhaps his mentor, Thelonious Monk, would have chosen a tune with such a background.
The three sideman discs in the collection include Monk's masterpiece "Brilliant Corners," Kenny Dorham's "Jazz Contrasts" and singer Abbey Lincoln's bittersweet "That's Him." It's Monk who opens the collection with "Brilliant Corners," an oddly shaped piece that leaps suddenly into double time, flummoxing the whole band, save its composer. No matter. The piece, and three Monk compositions that follow, helped reestablish Monk's reputation as a genius of modern music. On her date, Lincoln sings, dramatically as always, nine songs dedicated to men, such as "Porgy" and the world-weary Billie Holiday composition "Don't Explain." The least known of the original LPs that make up this collection must be Dorham's "Jazz Contrasts." Perhaps the reissue will help fans remember this trumpeter, whose bopping, fluent solos display his warm tone and dancing inventiveness.
Astonishingly, by the end of 1958, Sonny Rollins became dissatisfied with his own playing. He would temporarily retire, then return in the '60s as a sometimes avant-garde figure. At times, he sounded as good then as he does on these discs, which are indispensable to fans of jazz saxophone.