Music may be forever, but until the advent of modern recording devices, it was also ephemeral. Once the notes had been played or sung, they were gone forever. Thankfully, we now have the means by which to preserve wonderful music such as that written by Russ Freemanif not forever, at least for many years to come. Freeman, best known as a pianist with Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, and a host of others, was also an astute and tasteful composer, at least one of whose tunes, "The Wind, has become a jazz standard.
Stefan Karlsson, a friend and fellow pianist, wanted to make sure that Freeman's music wasn't gone with "The Wind, so he set about recording a number of Freeman's compositions, with his blessing. In an interview, Freeman said he considered Karlsson one of the three greatest living jazz pianists, the others being Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. The recording was completed in June 2002, and we'll never know if Freeman actually heard the finished product. Ken Hanlon, who produced the album and wrote its excellent liner notes, took a copy to Freeman in the hospital room where he lay seriously ill in a semi-coma. Freeman's wife and brother-in-law decided to put earphones on him in the hope that he might hear it, but he never regained consciousness and died in his sleep the next morning, June 27, a month after his 76th birthday.
If Freeman was able to hear the album, his soul must have been refreshed and euphoric, as the love and respect shown by Karlsson and his colleagues shines brightly in every note. As Freeman first earned wide recognition playing with Chet Baker's quartet in the early '50s, adding a lissome trumpet to Karlsson's trio was a no-brainer, and Stefan chose the perfect stand-in for Baker in Marvin Stamm, who reawakens Chet's spirit on five of the eleven selections, all but one of which, Karlsson's poignant "Elegy for Russ, were written by Freeman. Denver-based Joni Janak was Freeman's personal choice to sing "The Wind and the other tunes with lyrics, "Only You and "Music Is Forever, and she proves him right with marvelous interpretations of each.
While one may argue the premise that Karlsson is one of the three greatest living jazz pianists, or even one of the top hundred, there's no denying his impressive talent, nor that of his partners, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Ed Soph, or guests Stamm and Janak. Together they've fashioned a picturesque tribute that is worthy of the honoree, laced with sharp interplay and stylish solos, one that is thoroughly engaging from start to finish. Safeguarding some of Freeman's superlative music was a splendid idea for which we should all be grateful, and whose import is summed up in Annie Ross's perceptive lyric to the title song: "When they say nothing is forever, well I just smile 'cause I know it's not true; music is forever, and you still live when we listen to you.
Thanks to Karlsson and his collaborators, Russ Freeman lives on, at least in our hearts and memories, through his transcendent music. It may not be forever, but it's reassuring while it lasts.