Sonny Rollins usually places third among the greatest modern bop sax men, behind the impossibly exact Wayne Shorter and the untouchable King Coltrane. A stubborn refusal to stay in key for any extended period made his work sound daring rather than subdued, closer to Ornette Coleman’s ’60s dates than anything else from 1956. Critics often name that year’s Saxophone Colossus as his most satisfying record, and it always scores a position in the pantheons of major jazz collections.
Enter David S. Ware, a protege of Rollins who has been working around the downtown scene for three decades. He’s been called a revivalist fluent in the free speak of the early ’60s, a period when completely improvised jazz began to make its mark. Never has this been more evident than on Freedom Suite, which features four variations of the opening track from Rollins’ 1958 record of the same name. Ware rounded up ubiquitous New York jazz identities Matthew Shipp, William Parker and drummer Guillermo E. Brown for this tribute to his mentor, a thorough dissection of a single song.
The four tracks are tied together by what could only be called a simple chorus melody featuring a sequence of solitary piano and saxophone notes that change slightly with each new number. After a refrain, the band descends into improvisation, often for several minutes at a time. Only then does the album reveal its true charm, as the members of the group closely anticipate each other’s shifts in mood.
Ware’s playing is raw and reckless, mirroring Rollins’ own frequently atonal work. More cohesive than much of Coltrane’s later, wilder material, Ware’s barely controlled tenor is the uneven center of this band, and he soaks Track Two in deep smoky blues over a repeated bass arch. His playing style will be very familiar to fans of late-’60s post bop, as he starts and stops in random patterns, unleashing a torrent of furious notes before resting momentarily. But Ware does not focus strictly on volume or intensity. He plays along the outer edges of a chord, never allowing himself to slide too easily into key.
But spontaneity defines the jazz avant-garde, and this music would certainly be better experienced in a live setting, as Ware adheres closely to the standards governing free play’s call-and-response system. Each player answers the other’s motions with no preparation, so Freedom Suite sounds different each night, and after repeated exposure the listener begins to understand the ever changing life of a working jazz band. Ware is a phenomenal saxophonist, and this album is a solid, energetic performance, fulfilling all requirements of traditional experimentation, but it is also only one in an endless set of instrumental exchanges between gifted professionals.