There's an inclination to treat an 81-year-old sax master with kid gloves when assessing a new recording, but Von Freeman needs no such assistance.
The Great Divide continues his late in life resurgence as he pays tribute to former co-players Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. It may not be a landmark album, but there's no doubt Freeman is masterful player and Divide is a pleasure from start to finish.
Freeman, whose previous album The Improviser was a live performance with an appearance by young modernistic genius Jason Moran on piano, doesn't bring any radically new ideas to the arena here. But Freeman offers insight and spirit players a quarter his age ought to respect and learn from. There are no clichés here, nor does let the attention of his audience wander as he shifts comfortably between mid-tempo swing, complex ballads, and the occasional romp into hard bop and free improvisation. And his tone, long considered too avant-garde for a wider audience, may finally be perfectly suited for the modern age. The overall result is an album that possesses the gift of being intelligent without being overly scholarly.
He introduces his phrasing in fine form on the mid-tempo "Be My Love" before showing he can still bop furiously with anyone on the original "Never Fear Jazz Is Here" (the linear notes call it "'I Got Rhythm' at a super-fast tempo"). The real show-stoppers are his free improvisation over a single chord to the slow but rumbling rhythms of "Chant Time" and unaccompanied leisurely exploration of phrases and tone in the closing ballad "Violets For Your Furs."
Contributions from drummer Jimmy Cobb (the last surviving member of the Miles Davis sextet that recorded Kind Of Blue ), pianist Richard Wyands and bassist John Webber are largely subdued. All get solo time and accord themselves well like the longtime veterans they are, but this is largely Freeman's show.
It's pure speculation to hint that Freeman may not possess the stamina he once didhe lets Wyands do the soloing on "Never Fear Jazz Is Here" and there aren't the extended-length cuts found on some other albumsbut that robs nothing from what is here. Freeman has never achieved widespread recognition outside his hometown Chicago despite some stellar albums, so The Great Divide is unlikely to change that. But it will please fans and is certainly a solid bet for anyone looking to sample his work, although first-timers might want to start instead with one of two live CDs You Talkin' To Me? from 1999 or The Improviser from 2002.
Personnel: Von Freeman, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Cobb, drums; Richard Wyands, piano; John Webber, bass