Von Freeman: Vonski Speaks
The "musician's musician" is a tiring phraseassuming that only someone who actually plays an instrument can receive joy from listening to players such as tenor saxpohonists Dexter Gordon, Don Byas and Ike Quebec, trumpeter Dupree Bolton or drummer Walter Perkins. None of the aforementioned players are still with us, and all spent time either in Europe (where ostensibly they were more appreciated), or died in America with little to no recognition. But working in relative obscurity to an end that's neither bitter nor painful can happenit's just that perhaps it has less romance. Tenor saxophonist Von Freeman is an example of one of the hardest-working players in modern jazz, yet his work is known to very few outside of a local cognoscenti in his home base of Chicago.
Freeman is one of three brothers; his siblings guitarist George (1927- ) and drummer Bruz (1920-2006) were active in the Chicago and Los Angeles jazz communities, respectively, but neither have gotten much due. Freeman's first date as a leader, Doin' It Right Now, was waxed in 1972 for Atlantic, when he was 50 years old, though he had been recording intermittently since the late 1940s. It's not that Freeman wasn't playing or workingmaking a date just wasn't his top priority. Similarly, playing in Europe was lower on the list than his regular gig at the New Apartment Lounge. Hence, it took until John Corbett's 2002 Artistic Directorship of the Berlin Jazztage for Freeman (at age 80) and his group to make an international festival appearance. The New Apartment Lounge Quartet, as it's called, consists of guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Jack Zara and drummer Michael Raynor. Chuck Nessa had recorded Freeman before, in 1975 (Have No Fear and Serenade And Blues), and the tenor man's daring and idiosyncratic approach fits in nicely alongside Nessa releases by reed players Warne Marsh, Roscoe Mitchell, Charles Tyler and Hal Russell.
The Berlin Jazztage set is just under an hour and consists of four tunestwo originals and the standards "Darn That Dream" and "Summertime." Freeman is perhaps at his most intriguing on ballads, where his chunky approach to rhythm and lemony harmonics really come into view. Gentle pluck, strum and brush outline a yawing purr as Freeman hints at the tune's dreamlike state. The tune begins with a borderline aggressive a capella tenor plea, clustered notes and a seemingly wandering harmonic line before settling into a brief recall of the theme, Freeman's velvety growl at times birthing leaps and sputters, smoky tendrils alternately wowing and loquacious but never oblique. There could be a tendency to compare such readings to, say, Eric Dolphy's skirting of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" (The Illinois Concert, Blue Note, 1963), but Freeman is far less wry, excavating every nuance he can find out of the framework that's grafted onto the melody. Allemana's ensuing solo is tough as well but introspective, occasionally following the same quixotic intervals and puckering harmonics that the leader does, but mostly occupying a gauzy and breezy lilt as Zara and Raynor shade around him.
"Summertime" is given an extraordinary reading, warmed up for a few seconds unaccompanied with both hard-bitten quips and velvety purrs. When Freeman hits a low note, it's like a brick thrown into a swimming pool and when he clambers to the furthest upward reaches of a melody, he pulls the listener along with him. His sound is so resoundingly physical, the space in between those lows and highs can be vertigo-inducingly short, and the way he stretches out and then shoves together volleys of notes is as confounding and present as an environment-altering sculpture. Yet for as avant-garde as his playing might seem, often on the verge of breaking with tonality, it is always clearly derived from familiar thematic material, and his easy rapport with the audience is like a captain warmly easing one into a harrowing, turbulent flight.
Once Freeman launches into an up-tempo section, he recasts that tug-of-war into exuberant athleticism, gooey extended notes and blinding cascades supported by a jaunty lope. Allemana again proves himself to be an excellent partner, toying with odd voicings and husky, oddly-paced plucks that, while not the chunky dissonance of pianist (and longtime associate) John Young, support and match Freeman's vast range of ideas and staggering flair. Zara follows with a dusky unaccompanied pizzicato solo, and Raynor's mallets and spacing accentuate free-time leanings, reminiscent of Roy Haynes and Rashied Ali in his sharpness and piling of sound on the toms.
Vonski Speaks is one of a handful of releases that showcase the masterful playing of Von Freeman. Sure, there are a few other excellent dates that this group recorded and the discography of Freeman's work, while not nearly exhaustive, still counts a number of available discs. Whether or not he's a high profile artist or remains fairly obscure doesn't matter at the end of the dayin the liner notes, John Corbett relates how the quartet had to hightail it home after Berlin for a gig in Pulaski, Illinois. The work will get done, whether it's for an international audience or a local lucky few. Thankfully a bit of that work is available for those who don't call South Chicago or Pulaski home.
Tracks: Von's Greeting; Vonski Speaks; Darn That Dream; Summertime; Blues For Sunnyland.
Personnel: Von Freeman: tenor saxophone; Mike Allemana: guitar; Jack Zara: bass; Michael Raynor: drums.