The occasion for the recording was a high school reunion. Having met friend and pianist Barry Velleman at the University of Wisconsin after returning to his home state fresh from the jazz program at North Texas State, Horn never forgot some of the inspiration that Velleman provided, particularly in bop classics that Horn plays to this day. After looking up Velleman at the time of the reunion, they came up with the idea for recording Relaxin' In Milwaukee, making up for 25 years of lost time.
While Horn lists numerous saxophone influences in the liner notes, the most notable, from the evidence of Relaxin' In Milwaukee, would be Sonny Rollins. Indeed, Horn includes Rollins' "Doxy" and "Pent Up House" on the album, his assured attack and raspy tone strongly reminiscent of Rollins' work. Even on the tunes not directly attributed to Rollins, like "When I Fall In Love" or "Fred's Blues," the off-handed humor implicit in Rollins' playing and his gruff swing are evident.
But there's more to Fred Horn than that, as he shows on "Free Freddy," a rhythmless piece involving three-note extensions of tone over percussive colors--or on "Chunk O' Funk," Rick Kremer's booming bass driving a funky 10-bar rocker. Horn has turned Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" into "A Nitie Gown In Tunisia" by writing a new melody and altering the changes at the bridge. Nevertheless, the bop-based swing remains.
While Relaxin' In Milwaukee represents the musical reunion of Horn and Velleman after a quarter of a century, one would wish that Velleman had been able to play on a higher-quality piano. The muffled sound of the studio piano distracts from the energy and imagination of his solos, many of which start inauspiciously with the repetition of a single note before a fully realized solo develops from the early phrase. A careful listen to the way Velleman builds a solo reveals that his improvisations are conceived, at least in part, before he even starts, his melodic stories stacking detail upon detail for a final climax, as he does so well on "Pent Up House" by implying "One Note Samba" within its context.
Concluding Relaxin' In Milwaukee with an on-the-mark interpretation of "Invitation," Fred Horn commences interest in his career on the sidelines.... so much so that one hopes that he'll appear more often on jazz CD's in the future. His career is well worth watching.