Friday, November 13, 2009

Vonski

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.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Wilder

After numerous delays, we finally had the first rehearsal for the Alec Wilder concert yesterday....

For several years, I have wanted to present a concert of the music of Alec Wilder, that most unusual American composer. His amazing music is not as well known as it should be, perhaps because he is so unclassifiable. Wilder wrote some of the best songs in the "Great American Songbook," even if "While We're Young," "I'll Be Around," "Blackberry Winter," and "Moon and Sand" are not as widely known as the songs of Gershwin or Cole Porter.

But after years in the pop music business, Wilder began composing "classical" music, often for wind instruments. Again, this music is not widely known among classical listeners, but instrumentalists love it - Wilder's classical music is melodic, challenging, and fun to play. He wrote for musicians he liked - Julius Baker, Harvey Phillips, Donald Sinta - and just gave his scores away, not charging the recipients, and often not keeping a copy of the music for himself.

Although Wilder was by no means a jazz musician, much of his work was touched by jazz. He first gained fame by composing and recording a series of octets with titles like "Sea Fugue Mama," "It's Silk, Feel It!," and "Jack, This is My Husband." These pieces were written for woodwinds and a rhythm section which included harpsichord. They're not really jazz, not quite pop, and not exactly classical. They're totally Wilder, though.

And he wrote pieces like "Jazz Waltz for a Friend" for the great Marian McPartland. "Jazz Waltz" is strange, twisted, but ultimately logical. I wanted to play it for the concert, but was unable to find the sheet music. So I transcribed it from McPartland's first recording of the tune. It took me three days and gave me nightmares, literally - I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about those chords. But the odd harmonies and 38-bar structure make sense in the end.

At our rehearsal, we stumbled and felt our way through the tunes, but music started to emerge. When the other members of Standard Deviation, Scott, Janna, and Ben, began to rehearse what is perhaps my favorite Wilder song, "Blackberry Winter," I was somewhat overcome. I had only heard this song on recordings, never in person. That halting first attempt was so beautiful that it literally brought a tear to my eye. At the same time, I was chagrined and disappointed - the three of them sounded so perfect together on the song that I realized I shouldn't play on it. So I won't be playing my favorite Alec Wilder tune at the concert.

That concert, by the way, will be February 6 at the First Existentialist Congregation (The Old Stone Church) in Atlanta. It will feature Wilder's songs performed by Standard Deviation as well as some of his classical pieces - in particular the Clarinet Sonata performed by Sandy Wade. I'll keep everyone informed.