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Von Freeman: The Improvisor

Dan McClenaghan By

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Saxophonist Von Freeman wasn't bitten by the wanderlust—a disadvantage in a jazz career. You've got to tour, or at the very least move to New York or Los Angeles. Or so they say. But Freeman stayed in Chicago, and for the better part of the last thirty years has been holding court at The Apartment Lounge, working his artistry outside the bigger limelights, developing, over the course of time, virtuoso—if underappreciated—skills.

Put Von's new CD, The Improvisor, on blind, ignore the distinguished-looking grey-haired gent holding the sax on the cover, set the track for, say Freeman's take on Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love?" The sax man—eighty years young (79 at the time of the recording)—has some grit and growl, some musical beef as he muscles the melody around, sounds like a young lion come into his own. He gives the songs a young and hungry man's edge. Actually blisters the song. Gives his rhythm section a run for their money. And another classic, "Darn that Dream" done forthright, brawny-toned.

The CD opens with a Von Freeman sax solo, "If I Should Lose You" . Breathtaking—for the listener; followed by a Freeman original, "Ski-wee" that sounds like something Charlie Parker might have done, bopping hard.

Up and Comer (more accurately, maybe: Up and come, and he's here now) pianist Jason Moran joins Von on two numbers, a sultry "Blues for Billie"; and he is a surprisingly subdued and fine accompanist here, using just the right light touch behind Freeman's burly tone. And on Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise" he dances around Von's rough-edged blowing, and near the end of the tune lightens up to sound, well, Ellingtonian.

Freeman has been low profile most of his career: playing with some of the best—Steve Coleman, Branford Marsalis, Kurt Elling, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jason Moran—but staying close to home for the most part. And if that's delayed the respect and appreciation a musician of his skill and stature deserves, there is not a trace of bitterness in the man. This web site is featuring now a fine interview with Freeman; check it out. He was—is—supremely confident (yet humble) in his abilities and his artistry. The fame and money game were of small import to him.

The Improvisor was recorded live, at three different venues, and showcases Freeman's talents marvelously. If you haven't heard him, pick this one up. He rates with the very top sax players—the George Colemans and Sonny Rollins. An overlooked jazz treasure, hidden right here in the windy city, still playing at The Apartment Lounge.

Track Listing: If I Should Lose You, Ski-wee, What is this thing Called Love?, Darn That Dream, Blue Bossa, Blues for Billie, I Like the Sunrise

Personnel: Von Freeman, saxophone; Michael Raynor, drums; Mike Alleumara, guitar; Jack Zara, bass; Jason Moran, piano;Mark Dellias, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums

Title: The Improvisor | Year Released: 2002 | Record Label: Premonition Records


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