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Sonny Rollins: 'Freedom Suite'


MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: Jazz is music that celebrates freedom and that is a jazz piece that celebrates freedom as well as any ever has. It's called Freedom Suite. It's by Sonny Rollins, and A.B. Spellman, why should it be part of the NPR Jazz Basic Record Library?

A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Because it's one of the very first extended compositions for the tenor saxophone. And Sonny Rollins, who is a very good writer, in addition to a soloist, did develop this piece for himself and his trio, which includes Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach, two unmatched instrumentalists in their own right. It is the kind of piece that is so well-composed in its improvisation that you cannot tell where the writing starts and the playing ends. I think that people, in listening to this, must pay close attention to Roach and Pettiford and how they integrate. Because this is not mere accompaniment, this is real partnership in playing.


HORWITZ: Now it's an extended piece — it lasts almost twenty minutes. Tell us a little bit about why we won't be bored listening for twenty minutes to these three men.

SPELLMAN: Well, you won't be bored because what Sonny Rollins has done here is stated a very simple melody at the outset, then all the way through it, he will turn it inside out, upside down, and backwards so it sounds like a different melody. But it's still basically the same piece. So that is his sense of the development of the mood that he's trying to establish here. It reaches a kind of coherent whole by the end of it.

HORWITZ: So in other words, we're sort of compelled emotionally and intellectually all the way through the thing.

SPELLMAN: All the way through. He's obviously, since this was done in 1958, trying to make a statement about the freedom of his people and about his own musical freedom as well. This is after all, four years after Brown v. Board of Education... the beginning of, the building of the Civil Rights Movement. And Rollins wanted to make a contribution to that in his own way.


SPELLMAN: You will notice Rollins' distinctive tone—rich and full with a slight edge to it. This is especially appropriate to the sense of longing that describes the third movement.


HORWITZ: And so, for your Basic Jazz Record Library, we're recommending Sonny Rollins' great Freedom Suite. The CD is on the Original Jazz Classics label. For NPR Jazz, I'm Murray Horwitz.

A.B. SPELLMAN: And I'm A.B. Spellman.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A. B. Spellman
Murray Horwitz