In 1956, Sonny Rollins was one of the best-known tenor saxophonists in jazz, having recorded and released two wonderful and classic jazz albums, Saxophone Colossus and Tenor Madness, the latter being a tenor standoff with John Coltrane. In the following two years, freed from his Prestige Records contract, Rollins set about making some great records that were released on a variety of labels, including Riverside, Contemporary, and Period. He released Way Out West and worked with Thelonious Monk. Yet, even as his career ascended he was faced with the specter of racism when he attempted to rent an apartment in New York City. “Here I had all these reviews, newspaper articles and pictures,” Rollins later said. “At the time it struck me, what did it all mean if you were still a nigger, so to speak? This is the reason I wrote the suite.” “The suite” refers to the famous composition “Freedom Suite”, a nineteen minute piece that featured Rollins, accompanied only by bass and drums. It was jazz music’s first explicit instrumental protest piece, and its intentions were signaled in the original liner notes written by Rollins: “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.” The piece, a series of variations on fairly simple melodic material, caused a sensation, but Riverside Records decided it was too incendiary and pulled the recording, reissuing it under the title Shadow Waltz, the name of another track on the recording. Rollins’ liner notes were replaced with a set of notes by producer Orrin Keepnews (who was also part owner of the record label) that put a softer tone to the piece’s intentions. In essence, Sonny Rollins had been censored.
Flash forward to 2002. Tenor saxophonist David S. Ware and his quartet, comprised of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, and drummer Guillermo E. Brown, convene in July in Brooklyn’s Systems Two Studio to record a new version of Rollins’s masterpiece. Their version honors the spirit and the basic structure of the original, but also takes chances and explores some additional territory hinted at but not explicitly examined in the original. The piece is now nearly twice its original length, but this additional length does not come from merely allowing the players to spend more time blowing within the piece’s harmonic structure. No, instead Ward builds on the piece, adding a free interlude between the first and second parts, and integrating the whole into a beautifully conceived, epic composition.
One interesting aspect is the addition of piano to the piece. Since the original was recorded with only tenor sax, bass, and drums, this already requires a serious re-imagining of the work. Shipp has already proven himself very adept at fitting into pretty much any musical situation, and he does not disappoint here. He adds a foundation that functions as a well from which all other members of the quartet draw energy and inspiration, never really drawing attention to himself, but allowing a great deal of expansiveness in Ware’s conception of the piece.
For his part, Ware utilizes a greater variety of sound on his version of the Suite than Rollins did. Not long after the release of the original Freedom Suite Rollins retired for a time from performing and recording. When he emerged in 1962, he was playing in a much more unambiguously free style and working with a group of avant-garde musicians. It is clear that Rollins was working on incorporating a wider variety of sounds and improvisational elements usually associated with free jazz, and he had been doing so since Freedom Suite. Ware, whom Rollins took under his wing in his early years, makes Rollins’s free jazz leanings much more overt in his version of the piece, and I don’t doubt that the piece might have leaned much more toward free jazz had Rollins recorded it a couple of years later. That said, the piece never becomes a free jazz blowing session, at least in part because Shipp’s playing allows the others more freedom while simultaneously maintaining a clear base of operations.
The question that cannot help be asked by listeners to this piece would be “Why has Ware chosen to record Freedom Suite, and why now?” First, the piece is a very influential piece of tenor saxophone music, and for anyone playing the instrument it is a real yardstick, much like Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. To record Rollins’s composition and put one’s own stamp upon it is clearly a rite of passage for an adventurous tenor player. Branford Marsalis chose to record a version of the piece on his 2002 album Footsteps of Our Fathers. Marsalis’s version is much closer to Rollins’s version, but it is well performed and offers a combination of swing and sly wit. Still, one cannot help but feel that Ware comes closer to expressing the original feelings and content that Rollins intended, and his realization definitely adds something to the work.
Ware’s other reasons for recording Freedom Suite remain more personal. No doubt he also wished to express his musical debt to Rollins. “This is a perfect opportunity to show the link between me and Sonny,” explained Ware in an interview earlier this year, “an opportune time to show how one generation is built upon another and how the relationships work in the whole stream of music that’s called jazz.” One is also tempted to remember the story of Rollins’s censorship upon the release of the original album and see a parallel with the possible erosion of civil liberties in the wake of 9/11. That, of course, takes a piece that is very clearly about the liberation of African Americans and expands its context beyond what the composer intended. If should also be pointed out that Ware has made no statement that would support such an interpretation. It really doesn’t matter, though: Freedom Suite stands as a vibrant and original piece of music that comes to life through the Davis S. Ware Quartet’s creative interpretation, a testament to the influence that Rollins and his original statement had upon subsequent generations of Americans.