Perhaps as well-known for its political implications/reflections as it is for its music, "Freedom Suite" is probably the first attempt by a hard bopper at the "long from" --extended improvisation lasting more than the usual 3-5 minutes. In my opinion, the master (other than the semi-classical aesthetic of Ellington, who frequently used terms such as "Suite" and "Concerto"), the master of the form is composer/bassist Charles Mingus. In contrast to these two giants, Rollins works within a trio format, thus presenting a heavier burden on each musician. Fortunately, ROllins' trio has three greats, Rollins, Oscar Pettiford on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Bottom line: This is an excellent, although not "essential" (whatever that vague term means) album that's worth your time and money if you're a fan of Rollins, post-bop, the long-form, or generally consider yourself a jazz fan. What follows are more extended notes on the cuts, especially the 19-minute "Freedom Suite."
The first movement of "Freedom Suite" (19 minutes, 17 seconds) begins with a simple, fairly light riff, with drums and bass filling in between restatements. Then Sonny Rollins improvises against the riff's rhythm and harmonies--one can still hear the basic melodic structure as well. Rollins fluid sound contrasts in an interesting way with the sharply percussive, punctuated rhythm section. As is frequently the case, the improvisations move further from the basic theme, but he still makes this center a home. Bassist Petitford has an excellent, nimble solo, and then Rollins plays, this time sounding more like the rhythm section, with shorter bursts of sound introducing an exciting yet economical Max Roach solo. IN short, the first movement is fairly conventional structurally and sonically, it seems like a warm-up.
We're soon treated to a different theme, somewhat more anguished and blues-based, with superb bowed bass backing Rollins thoughtful flights and bursts. He changes tempo suddenly, and the anguish is both softer and more sullen, more thoughtful. The tone is very satisfying, neither overly dry, nor so rich that it would overshadow the emotional impact. Rollins melody and tempo conveys both bitter feelings and a sort of yearning/quiet hope. Much of it is beautiful.
The third movement has a curious energy, with the band prowling around some mysterious territory, searching, stopping, then taking off in a different direction altogether. It feels like a trapped tiger running quickly through a labyrinth, speeding and altering course. It's a very short but effective section. The final section is much more hard-boppish, propelled nicely by the tight rhythm of Roach and Petitford, with several energetic long lines by Rollins. The three band members take memorable turns, complementing each other superbly. The mood does suggest a measure of increased freedom, a breakout, with the ultimate outcome unknown In a final, elegant, statement, Rollins seems to suggest the dignity of his dream.
Things are understandably more casual on "Someday I'll Find You," (4:35) with Rollins sounding somewhat dryer (although not even approaching Jackie McLean's tone). It's most notable for the tight playing and hard bop aesthetic, and some excellent, varied drumming patterns from Max Roach. They return to the melody in the final 45 seconds or so. "Will You Be Mine" is somewhat in the same vein, with a Mingus-like conclusion. There are two versions of the lovely "Till There Was You," fans and musicologists will note that these are Take 4 (4:54) and Take 3 (4 :55). Both are slow, with Rollins playing some interesting solo breaks. I found Take 3 more satisfying, Rollins blowing a smooth, very confident sound against a "cooler" bass and drums. The tones are somewhat rounder, and the more subtle background gives Rollins' statement a clearer voice. The final cut show Rollins in a more contemplative mood, with a fine, rich Petitford solo, out of which Rollins voices snippets of sound, like fragments of some larger riff. Then, as if often the case here, he concludes on a mellow tone.
Although Rollins doesn't master the much vaunted "long form" as well as Mingus, Freedom Suite (the composition, not the album), conveys emotion, and shows improvisorial abandon within its structure. That structure is a little too constrained, although that may be due partially to the 3-piece band (as opposed to the nonets, etc., employed by Mingus). Although Rollins, at this early, stlll primarily post-bop stage, doesn't take the chances that Mingus did, his probing, exploring sounds and expression are mostly compelling, and the band is superb. Recommmended.