There's a new Von Freeman album out. In a just world, this would mean that the legendary 87-year-old Chicago tenor saxophonist would be making the rounds of the talk shows - playing on Good Morning America and trading quips with Letterman and Leno; the news would be splashed on the arts sections of every paper in the country. As it is, Von Freeman's audience is a minority within a minority; a small subsection of the already small jazz audience. How many people are going to notice a new Freeman album?
Twenty years or so ago, my band of the time, the Bazooka Ants, opened Chicago Day at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, for some reason - we certainly had no link to Chicago. I guess we were picked because we were kind of avant-garde, but also accessible - a good lead-in to the first two of the Chicago acts that filled the rest of the day: Douglas Ewart's clarinet ensemble (with Anthony Braxton) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It was an amazing day, and seeing/hearing the Art Ensemble's set from the side of the stage was like going to church. But the highlight was the appearance of Von Freeman. I was standing near Ewart and Roscoe Mitchell while Von was deep into a medium-up tune on Rhythm changes. Mitchell turned to Ewart, laughed and shook his head, and said, "Now that's a real saxophone player!"
Freeman's playing is unusual and highly individual; he has a very personal tone, sense of rhythm, and style of phrasing, as well a flexibility with pitch which allows him to bend notes "into the cracks" between the tempered pitches of Western music. His music is so interesting and moving in part because he's always improvising. That may seem like a simplistic thing to say about a jazz musician - isn't that what they all do? But so many "improvising" musicians are just recycling their licks; it's easy to predict what they're going to play next. Not so with Von - he continually takes the music in surprising and unexpected directions. His version of "Footprints," from Live at the Dakota, is as strange and beautiful as any music I've ever heard. His tortured phrases slide around and between the pitches of the chromatic scale, and he plays with amazing drive and intensity - he was a mere 73 years old at the time. And his spoken introduction to the tune is both funny and sobering - I'll let you track down the album and check it out yourself.
Von didn't record an album of his own until he almost 50. What is often considered his best record was made a couple of years after that - Have No Fear came out on Nessa, Chuck Nessa's label. (Disclaimer - While we've never met, Mr. Nessa and I are slightly acquainted through the tubes of the internet.) Nessa's output has been small, but uncompromisingly excellent - 25 or so albums over the past 30 years. Nessa's latest release is Vonski Speaks, by Freeman and the quartet that accompanies him on his regular Tuesday night gig at the New Apartment Lounge in Chicago. The CD is both joyous and achingly beautiful. On the uptempo title cut, Von's phrases often begin like conventional bebop phrases before they are twisted into unexpected directions, ending on unusual notes. I was less than excited to see yet another recorded version of "Summertime," but this is the most challenging reading of the Gershwin song I've ever heard, with the possible exception of Albert Ayler's. The young band which accompanies him is worthy of Freeman's great performance; I imagine playing with Von stretches them to play above themselves. This is great jazz.
Maybe I'm reading too much into this album, but to me Freeman's work on Vonski Speaks perfectly captures both the wonder and brevity of our moment on this planet - it reminds us that life is complex, beautiful, and short. While we and Von are still on this side of the grass, hear his music. Von Freeman is a national treasure.