It's become one of the truisms of jazz that Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman is under-recorded. Some would also say underrated, but only in the sense that there are many, many jazz fans who have never heard Freeman. No one who has heard his bluesy, muscular improvisations and complete mastery of his instrument would underrate him for a moment. The reasons for Vonski's relative obscurity are probably deceptively simple: he has chosen to remain in Chicago where he has provided immeasurable inspiration to the city's younger musicians and has helped shape Chicago's jazz scene since first recording as a leader in 1972. In addition, he has primarily recorded for a number of small, independent labels, most notably Chicago's Southport label. Finally, Freeman is much more interested in the perpetual process of learning to play the music and listening to everyone whose paths he crosses. Like his fellow Chicagoan Fred Anderson, Freeman is the quintessential jazzman, a breed that continues to capture the imagination of fans and fellow musicians alike despite its apparent nearness to extinction.
Freeman has been leading his regular group through stellar sets at the New Apartment Lounge on Chicago's 75th Street for some 20 years now, but he was on the scene way before that. He knew everyone, played with them all: Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, everyone. He was playing before there was bebop, but he has so thoroughly absorbed the lessons of bop as well as most of what came after that you'd never know it unless you listen very closely. Then you'll hear the pure pleasure in playing with and behind the beat a la Lester Young, the sheer beauty of Coleman Hawkins. Freeman, though, has something completely unique, completely his own. His sound isn't like that of his Texas tenor cohorts. There's something harder edged, squawky and rich with the blues that defines the sound of this city, and Von Freeman is the fountainhead. Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris; they all have it too, and they spread that Chicago sound far and wide in their travels, while Freeman kept the home fires burning. Many young musicians have cut their teeth at New Apartment Lounge jam sessions with Freeman, not least of all Kurt Elling and Von's own son, Chico Freeman.
Freeman turned 80 on October 3, 2002. His birthday was celebrated at the Chicago Jazz Festival and at a concert at Orchestra Hall on October 4. That concert, billed as "Von Freeman's 80th Birthday Celebration" features Chico Freeman, Sam Rivers, Ron Blake, Brad Goode, George Freeman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Mulgrew Miller, Jason Moran, Avery Sharpe, Dennis Carroll, Winard Harper, Michael Raynor, and Kurt Elling. That's a stunning array of talent brought together to honor one man. But there's no one more deserving of such a tribute than Vonski. He's so at ease with his horn and with the changes of any song he chooses to play that the title of his latest CD, The Improvisor, couldn't be more apt.
The Improvisor opens with a solo rendition of "If I Should Lose You" that is breathtaking in its beauty and romanticism. This is Von the timeless interpreter of classic ballads. Certainly there are echoes of Coleman Hawkins in there, but there is also the sound of Sonny Rollins playing on the George Washington Bridge at midnight. The ability to play captivatingly, to hold a conversation with oneself without accompaniment is a test of raw skill and musicianship. It also requires incredible focus, for there is no timekeeper, no bass outlining the chord structure nor a pianist or guitarist to make the link between one chord and another. It's all down to the one person-melody, harmony, rhythm, tone, technique, the whole enchilada. And here is where Von Freeman is almost without peer in today's jazz world. This performance was recorded at the Chicago Cultural Center and it is a gift that it's been captured on this disc.
The next four tracks are performances recorded by Freeman and his usual group (Mike Allemana, guitar, Michael Raynor, drums, Jack Zara, bass) in their natural habitat at the New Apartment Lounge. The Freeman original "Ski-wee" is up first, a straightforward bop number that demonstrates not only its leader's strengths but those of the group as a whole. Raynor and Zara form a formidable backbone, locked tightly into the beat, always pushing, always kicking, but never faltering or getting ahead of the beat. Freeman takes a couple of choruses before Allemana kicks in, and when he does it is as though a window is opened in a hot room. Zara takes a chorus, then Allemana, both riding the same focused beat laid down so well by Raynor. Freeman comes in and trades choruses with Allemana before the group takes the whole thing out. Before you can say "Charlie Parker" the group has launched into a breakneck version of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" Allemana takes the first solo and lays down the gauntlet, performing wondrous runs and nice chordal work before turning it over to Freeman, who sounds like he barely breaks a sweat laying down a solo so perfectly constructed you have to wonder how anyone could think that fast. Ah, there's the secret: Vonski's got no need to think about what he's going to do, he knows the changes so well, has internalized them so far, he just breathes his solo into the horn. That may sound like it diminishes the skill involved in playing at this level, but it actually points at the hours, days and months that add up to years and decades of practice, careful listening, late night jam sessions, and other moments in the life of a jazz musician that all come down to this moment so that Freeman doesn't have to think about it. He's just perfectly in the moment.
And so it goes, through wonderful renditions of "Darn That Dream" and "Blue Bossa" that can't be improved by my poor attempts to describe them. Suffice it to say that no matter how many times you've heard these standards, you haven't really heard anyone play them the way Von Freeman and his group do. You'll be forced to really listen to them as though you've never heard them before.
The last two tracks were recorded at the North Side's Green Mill. "Blues for Billie", another Freeman original, is performed with pianist Jason Moran and his excellent group comprised of bassist Mark Helias and drummer Nasheet Waits. It's a wonderfully relaxed performance; you'd think that Freeman and Moran had been playing together for some time, but in fact Moran had only spoken to Freeman a couple of times. "Von possesses one of those rare qualities that allows people to relax around him," says Moran. The other performance here, the final one, is a Duke Ellington number, "I Like the Sunrise" performed as a duet by Moran and Freeman. Freeman didn't know the number, so Moran played it to him over the phone and Von recorded it on a tape. "When it came time for us to play it, he told us verbally what we were supposed to do. That type of learning music is almost forgotten."
Fortunately, Von Freeman has not forgotten, and he has passed on the lessons he's learned, what he humbly refers to as "what little knowledge I have" to younger musicians like Moran and Elling who probably won't forget, either. The musical world-no, the whole world-is richer for having someone like Von Freeman inhabit it for 80 years and counting. He may have been under recorded, but those recordings that are out there are absolutely killer. And there's still Tuesday night at the New Apartment Lounge. In the meantime, if you like straight ahead, no nonsense jazz, the glorious sound of the tenor saxophone in the hands of someone who how to get the most out of the horn, then your jazz CD collection absolutely demands that you pick up a copy of The Improvisor.