With all due respect to the other important tenor saxophonists of the 1950s, Theodore Walter "Sonny" Rollins was the tenor of those times. During the Eisenhower era, Rollins (b. 1930) forged a string of albums that can stand with the sustained work of any major improviser on any instrument. In particular, his recordings for several independent jazz labels, beginning with 1954's Work Time (on Prestige, his most frequent recording affiliation during this period) and culminating with 1958's Sonny Rollins Meets the Contemporary Leaders (originally on the Los Angeles–based Contemporary Records and included herein, it directly preceded his much-discussed two-year sabbatical from public performance), chart his ascendance to greatness.
The 58 selections on these five discs were done between December 1956 and October 1958, an especially fruitful time in Rollins's creative life. That we were witnessing his first golden age was substantiated in a 1996 Village Voice poll of 23 prominent jazz critics, who were asked to select their five favorite Rollins albums. Four of the collective top five were from '56 to '58 and two, Way Out West and Freedom Suite, containing the tenorist's first long-form composition, are part of this package.
Here is the musician sometimes known as "Saxophone Colossus," in studios on both coasts and in consistently, commensurately brilliant company, including Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Kenny Dorham, Sonny Clark, Clark Terry, Abbey Lincoln, and Ray Brown. All the elements of Rollins's style--the muscular tone and flashing wit, the harmonic acumen and untethered rhythmic sense, the encyclopedic knowledge of popular songs and unaccompanied solos--are here, fully formed.
Four-plus decades after these performances were made, and as he approaches his 70th birthday in the year 2000, Sonny Rollins's inventiveness remains unsurpassed.