Chicago tenor sax king Von Freeman - 82 years young, btw - is one of the more unique jazz musicians on the American scene. He has what can tidily described as an "inside/outside" style - the vocabulary is hard bop, but his tone and technique, having absorbed the verities of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, embraces aspects of the avant-garde. Vocalizations, an elastic approach to rhythm, unusual harmonies, "out" flurries - Freeman can do all that and more, but never strays far from husky, blues-rooted swing, a la the great Kansas City tenors that played with Count Basie. Freeman, an edgy modernist though not a free player, is of the generation that sounds as if he’s embracing the tenor saxophone while playing. At last weekend’s performance at Chicago’s renowned Green Mill (one of the oldest clubs in town, if not the USA), Freeman (backed by his regular unit of locals) held sway over the packed house with his amalgam of brisk, inventive, cliché-free playing and gracious between-song good humor.
His latest on the Chicago-based Premonition label, The Great Divide
, pays tribute to the previously mentioned holy trinity of the jazz saxophone: Hawkins, Young and Parker. Freeman and his quartet of New Yorkers go to town on some not done-to-death standards ("Blue Pres," "This is Always, "Disorder at the Border") and some Von F originals ("Hard Hittin,’" "Chant Time") - throughout, VF gracefully walks the line between non-gooey affectionate tribute to his inspirers and an unpredictable, slightly irreverent reinvention of their legacies. Simply put, he synthesizes their influences - Parker’s vivacious dexterity, Young’s lovely, singing tone, Hawkins’ burly, breathy, bear-hug of a style - adds his own twists ‘n’ turns to the mix, until they come out sounding like no one but Von Freeman. Not to slight his crew - they swing hard with plenty of inspiration, focus and succinctness [10 tracks! yes!] right along with him. Cobb has lost none of his restrained élan, and Richard Wyands has that hard bop meat-and-potatoes Red Garland approach down. But make no mistake: this IS Freeman’s show. Pick hit: getting my vote for finest single sax performance of 2004: the unaccompanied closer "Violets For Your Furs." In this style of jazz, along with This Is The Moment
by similarly not-as-well-known-as-should-be sax guy Joe Romano (go & find!), it really just doesn’t get much better than The Great Divide