“The Freebop Band had its origins in New York in the fall of 1978 as part of the loft jazz scene,” trumpeter Malachi Thompson wrote in the notes for Freebop Now! (Delmark), issued five years ago on the 20th anniversary of the band’s founding. “However, the idea of Freebop had its roots in Chicago”–some ten years earlier, when Thompson fell under the influence of the AACM. He came to believe that, as Andrew Hill’s music had presaged in the mid-60s, his era’s ferocious thrust toward musical freedom needn’t obliterate the important jazz that preceded it. The lessons of freedom could revitalize comparatively traditional song structures; the essences of “free” and “bop” could in fact coexist. With that in mind, Thompson came up with a sort of postmodern Jazz Messengers, with a front line comprising alto and tenor saxes as well as his own trumpet. (The first edition of the Freebop Band actually included a Messengers alumnus, the late tenor man Carter Jefferson.) In the 25 years since, several excellent saxists have worked in the band; the current lineup is the best yet, with Billy Harper playing a fulminant tenor, plus the sage and puckish Gary Bartz on alto and soprano. (Oddly enough, this edition of the group, which has played several engagements in Chicago, has never been recorded; Bartz and Harper each appear on various albums by Thompson, but not together on any of them.) Pianist Kirk Brown, the rhythm section leader from the outset, has been the band’s most consistent feature; Thompson’s command of the trumpet has waxed and waned over the years. But in the last 18 months he’s retooled his technique and recaptured the metal-melting tone and brash phrasing that marked his first successes. Right now he’s playing as well as ever and, frankly, better than many of us had dared hope to hear again. Friday, May 23, 9 PM, and Saturday, May 24, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.