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George Freeman: 90 Going On Amazing

Dan Bilawsky By

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George Freeman has long been a homebody. Early on he made his mark on stage and/or in the studio with the best of the best- -saxophone lodestars Lester Young and Charlie Parker, to mention just two—as they came through his hometown, Chicago. Touring did eventually figure into his career—he hit the road with soulful heavies Gene Ammons and Shirley Scott in the '50s—but he essentially gave up the travelling life about six decades ago. Since that time he's become a fixture in the Windy City, a Midwestern musical treasure acknowledged throughout the region yet seldom saluted as he should be elsewhere. Now, that recognition will hopefully come his way. Freeman made a decent blip on the national radar with All In The Family (Southport Records, 2015), co-leading that session with his better-known nephew—Chico Freeman; he attained nonagenarian status back in April of 2017; and this long- shelved date, recorded in 2005, is now hitting the marketplace.

The thing that's most striking about this record, and perhaps most important when it comes to discussing George Freeman's sonic identity, is tone. He presents every idea with a bright and rounded sound, direct as can possibly be. His power of sustain is pure perfection, as single notes hang over the harmonies below with just the slightest taper, and his repetitive, one-note flutters come off like a beautiful gathering of lightning bugs, not a buzzing swarm of bees. His ideas almost seem to run second to his sound, and that's just fine. With a sound like that, who would want to draw focus away?

Originals dominate here, with only three covers showing up on the playlist, and most of the material is fairly easygoing in nature. Numbers like "That's It," "Steppin' With George," and "Contaminated" speak to the blues-soaked world in which Freeman has always thrived; "Trees" and "That's All" offer opportunities to bask in the glow of the guitarist's ballad playing; "Bruz, George, Chico & Von" speaks to blood, giving pianist Vince Willis a chance to step to the microphone and add laudatory vocals honoring Freeman's musical family; and "Mike's Tempo" brings sunny and slinky qualities to the fore. In every case, Freeman sits in the driver's seat and Willis is right there to give him what he needs. There's a no-frills quality behind what bassist Jack Zara and drummer Kevin Patrick bring to the table—their contributions are fairly bland, to be honest—but they're not the ones who need to carry the date. Those two sidemen get through without fanfare, leaving the spotlight right on the leader.

Freeman won't wow you with virtuosity, there's absolutely nothing forward-looking to be found here, and the final mix could've been a bit better. But none of that really matters in the grand scheme of this recording and this musician's history. 90 Going On Amazing—a bit of a misnomer in a way, since Freeman was 78 when it was recorded—is about a man's ability to tell a story with his guitar, plain and simple. It's hard not to appreciate what George Freeman has to offer in that respect.
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