Von Freeman

Jazz Showcase, January 13 and 14

Being a local legend can be a mixed bag. Consider Von Freeman, the 72-year-old tenor saxophonist who reigns as Chicago’s preeminent local jazz legend. In the 40s, he performed with bop genius Charlie Parker. In the 60s, Miles Davis tried to hire him as a replacement for John Coltrane. In the 80s, he and his son Chico, a formidable saxophonist himself, shared an album with the first family of jazz: trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, his saxophonist brother Branford, and his pianist father Ellis (Fathers and Sons, Columbia). And in the 90s, he’s performed at New York’s most prestigious concert halls–Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

But legendary status can have drawbacks. It’s opened a lot of doors for Freeman, making him a familiar figure at a variety of local clubs (including the Bop Shop, the Green Mill, Pops for Champagne, and Andy’s). But appearing so often at so many places can make a performer seem as unremarkable as a crooked alderman. And the tag “legendary,” which smacks of the sort of hushed reverence usually reserved for the dead, can make a performer seem less a vital artist–one who continues to take chances–than a bloodless icon.

But Freeman is neither unremarkable nor bloodless. Hearing him live is like taking a tour of a fun house: you never know what you’ll find behind the next door.

Upon entering, the first thing you notice is that the floor seems tilted–the result of Freeman’s distinctively oblique intonation. His sour off-center tone–which occasionally prompts charges that he plays out of tune–invests the best of his performances with a hard-edged emotional intensity. When he played Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation” on a recent weekend at the Jazz Showcase, where he led a fine quintet (Brad Goode on trumpet; Joan Hickey on piano; Mendai on bass; Robert Shy on drums one night and Michael Raynor on drums the other), he bristled with energy but also sounded wounded. And when he played the ballad “Lover Man,” he conjured up a world that was unremittingly bleak.

Freeman’s improvisations take you quickly from one room to the next. Some of them, like the meowing slurs during an unaccompanied solo on the ballad “Body and Soul,” are breathtakingly strange. Others, like the wild chorus at the top of his range on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” offer hair-raising adventure.

Not all of his ideas are equally striking. But jazz improvisation on the order of Freeman’s is necessarily a hit-or-miss affair. As Somerset Maugham put it, only the mediocre are always at their best.

Throughout the recent performance Freeman played the role of genial host. One moment he was encouraging the bassist: “Hit it, Mendai!” The next he was indulging in Von-speak, adding the ending “-ski” to proper nouns, turning himself into “Vonski” and the Duke Ellington piece into “Caravanski.” And in another he was explaining, in a tone half mocking and half serious, the unpredictable nature of jazz: “Sometimes this horn plays and sometimes it doesn’t. I have no control over it.”

At their best, Freeman’s performances dazzle in ways all too rarely encountered in jazz these days. While the well-mannered music of many of today’s most acclaimed performers (Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts) may have its appeal, it generally lacks those undomesticated virtues that Freeman’s music celebrates: daring, originality, and unpredictability. Like the man himself, Freeman’s musical values are a product of this city. He began developing them while attending DuSable High School, where–like many other Chicago-bred jazz giants, including fellow tenor saxophonists Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, and John Gilmore–he studied under the fabled music teacher Captain Walter Dyett. As Freeman once explained in a New York Times interview, Dyett stressed originality, preaching a message both simple and elusive: “Try and find yourself.” Even when performing classic material (Ellington, Parker, Monk), Freeman’s music sounds brand-new. The difference between him and many younger musicians who have achieved greater renown is like that between a fun house and a museum.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.