Russ Freeman: Safe at Home

[5 October 2005]

By Robert R. Calder

The pianist Russ Freeman died a couple of years ago in his middle seventies, after some four decades as a musical director, and spells of film work. The present set, tapes of a concert recovered from somebody’s archive in Canada, come from near the end of his fifteen continuous years as a top-line jazz musician. He was thirty-three years old, and had been a real presence, as Len Dobbin makes plain in the splendidly concise account of Freeman’s various musical associations. The names include Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown. In the early 1950s he recorded a couple of trio sets, eight numbers in all, at a time when he was working and recording regularly with Chat Baker. Mr. Dobbin’s statement that Freeman had a lot to do with the musical success of some early Baker recordings isn’t novel or original, but it’s very true. I remember it being made long before Freeman turned up again on some late 1970s dates with Art Pepper, and it encouraged me to acquire a splendid latter day set of piano-drums duets featuring Freeman with his longtime partner, the drummer on his eight 1953 sides, Shelly Manne.

It is indeed a good idea, as Mr- Dobbin says, to go out hunting the recordings he mentions, not just for Stan Getz in 1954, or Andre Previn as a piano duo partner with Manne on drums, but to hear even more of what there is here.

Freeman reminds me a bit of his contemporary, George Wallington, who started earlier and disappeared more completely before a final, all too short flourish. Each of them plays a strong left hand part in trio. There is a good bassist on this set, and a very good drummer, but the label can’t confirm their respective identities. This is a pity, but shouldn’t discourage attention from a pianist you might not know of, playing with two anonymous individuals. One or other of them might have been even more famous than Freeman (if not as famous as his guitar-playing namesake—“Egad! ” Mr Dobbin exclaims, recalling with due distaste a so-called reviewer who bumbled into saying that Freeman the guitarist had worked with Baker! Egad indeed!).

Freeman has various advantages over some youngsters of today whose piano trio sets get highly touted. He knows what he is doing, he’s relaxed, and in he dives with “The Party’s Over”, demonstrating a deeply brainy left hand. It knows everything, it states the rhythms, and the harmonies, and its brilliant capacity for paraphrase it detonates a number of performances. Forget the words of this show tune, indeed forget the tune until the pianist brings it in as a contribution to his be-bop improvised performance. “Sweet and Lovely” gets the same, before with “Lush Life” Freeman starts to look around a bit and ply his awakened audience with a little tenderness. He is inside the tune, is one way of putting it. This was a guy with a lot of options. He knew a very great deal.

He announces to the audience that “Billie’s Bounce” is by the great Charlie Parker, and in he goes at swinging breakneck pace.

Where “Sweet and Lovely” sounded astonishingly like a blues, quite a lot more here does too. “With a Song in My Heart” reminds me that he sings along quietly and mellifluously sometimes. His strong left hand maintains a mid-tempo momentum in the harmonic expansion of the theme. It’s not quite clear where he’ll go after that emotional beginning, but soon it’s the same bluesy bebop, a stream of invention, an exultant song. The abandon of the real thing.

One minor disadvantage he suffered was that his 1953 sides appeared on a CD with the very few trio studio recordings made by the late Dick Twardzik, who would have outclassed almost any other pianist. Yet just because the Eiger ain’t Everest don’t mean it ain’t high.

Presumably Freeman did well when Mariah Carey recorded words over his tune “Wind”. Len Dobbin mentions Freeman’s gifts as composer. The last five titles are from his own book, although he was a sufficiently gifted improviser to have conjured a few more tunes by jettisoning the evidence that his standards were standards. His left hand isn’t to the fore to the same extent on his dancing “Fan Tan”, and his relaxation on “Safe at Home” enables a ballad performance combining simplicity, tenderness, and great harmonic sophistication, with some block chord work. I’m reminded slightly of Ahmad Jamal, although elsewhere Freeman’s fellow West-Coaster Hampton Hawes comes more to mind.

“Yesterday’s Gardenias” releases the puissant left hand again, and the drummer’s excellent cymbal work helps reinforce echoes of Bud Powell. “Fungo”, like the title track, comes from a series of tunes recorded on a two-piano album with Andre Previn and Shelly Manne, where all the tunes were named from the baseball vocabulary. “Fungo” actually is a blues though it couldn’t have been very much more bluesy than some of the things before. He has harmonic savvy beyond the possibility of any performance of clichés, and like him the drummer has wit enough to joke and enhance the deep fun with dashes of parody. The little burble of him singing along isn’t intrusive, it’s a bonus.

“Backfield in Motion” obviously comes from the baseball-titled repertoire. The left hand (backhand?) powers in before the audience has quite finished hailing the penultimate title. He’s not doing this for applause, and the thought of being able to turn up for a concert as happy as this one, share it with a player as swingingly exciting and at one with his music: hey! Beside the obvious musical virtues this set is an experience. It wins!

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