The Improvisor
Premonition Records 66917 90757 2 3

Resorting to clichés when writing about Von Freeman is easy. A, quote, “living legend” end quote, in his home town of Chicago, he turned 80 this month (on October 3) and, as the phrase makers would have it, never quote “rests on his laurels” end quote, and quote “plays with the energy of a man half his age” end quote.

All this is true enough, but unlike other honored septuagenarian or octogenarian jazzers, Freeman is doing more than merely playing with the artistic maturity he exhibited in his forties, fifties, sixties ands seventies: he’s trying new things as well. This CD, recorded when he was a mere 79, finds him not only working with his regular band, at a live gig he’s had at South Side club for 20 years of Tuesdays, but also with an out-of-town rhythm section. It also features a duet on an obscure Duke Ellington line with him and New York pianist Jason Moran, who is more than 50 years Freeman’s junior. Plus the album begins with an unaccompanied tenor saxophone version of the standard “If I Should Leave You”, where Freeman mixes the sensuality of a Gene Ammons with the cold steel of a Sonny Rollins.

Throughout the disc, Freeman, who over the years worked in Horace Henderson’s pre-war band, backed Billie Holiday, and played with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Johnny Griffin, plus Sun Ra — before he formed the Arkestra (!) — spreads his slightly flat sweet-and-sour tone over the tunes until they’re transformed into unmistakable Freeman artifacts. Unlike the neo-cons that come to jazz originals and standards from fake books or CDs, these are the songs the tenorist has been examining and experimenting with all his life. Remember, when trumpeter Kenny Dorham first recorded his “Blue Bossa” in the early 1960s, Freeman, who likes to be called Vonski, had already been a professional musician for almost a quarter of a century. Furthermore, the harsh, cutting cadenzas he unleashes when playing it reveal its powerful structure, making the piece a relaxed swinger, not an exercise in nostalgia.

Always inventive, he easily finds fresh ways to approach warhorses like “Darn That Dream”, which he and his “baby brothers” guitarist George and drummer Bruzz were likely playing in South Side clubs in the 1940s. What’s more, his own “Blues for Billie” (Holiday likely) although recorded on Chicago’s North Side still rocks with the unwavering beat and heartfelt passion that has made that city’s blues a watchword for authenticity since the 1930s.

With young drummer Nasheet Waits laying down the beat alongside versatile veteran bassist Mark Helias, whose tenor companions are usually the likes of free players like Ellery Eskelin or Dewey Redman, Freeman easily takes command with a series of cries, feints and trills. More to the point, on the tenor/piano meeting, modernist Moran ends up trying to approximate a lowdown, back alley stance like those effortless bluesy showcases evolved by Vonski’s longtime associate, pianist “Young” John Young.

When Vonski and Moran take apart and put together the Ellington tune, the high-pitched trills and glottal probes the saxophonist pull from his horn nearly overpower the articulate single notes and rolling arpeggios created by the younger man. You wouldn’t hear anything more, quote, avant garde, unquote, if the soloists were saxophonist David S. Ware and pianist Matthew Shipp or John Zorn and Misha Mengelberg.

Not that the members of Freeman’s regular group have to take back seats to the visitors in any way. Michael Raynor is a pliable rhythm master, who can as easily work with scat vocalist Kurt Elling as Vonski. Bassist Jack Zara is an impressively, unshowy journeyman whose business is rhythm and who eschews anything resembling showboating. Finally, guitarist Michael Allemana is one of those rare types like Toronto’s Ed Bickert, who churns out mainstream lines and variations in the most expected of forms yet makes it obvious that he’s toying with the piece as if he’s playing it for the first, not the thousandth time.

Like Redman, who too often is known merely as Joshua Redman’s father, many outside of Chicago only know Vonski as Chico Freeman’s dad. That’s true all right, but it remains to be seen if the son will be as impressive and ingenious a musician as his father when he hits 80.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Von Intro 2. If I Should Lose You 3. Ski-wee* 4. What Is This Thing Called Love-skis?* 5. Darn That Dream* 6. Blue Bossa* 7. Blues for Billie+^ 8. I Like The Sunrise+

Personnel: Von Freeman (tenor saxophone); Michael Allemana (guitar)*; Jason Moran (piano+); Jack Zara* or Mark Helias^ (bass); Michael Raynor* or Nasheet Waits^ (drums)