Remembering: Von Freeman’s Swing, Bebop, Avant-Garde Thing
[Editor's Note: On August 11, jazz saxophonist Von Freeman passed away at 88 years of age. In 2010, Kevin Whitehead wrote a piece about Freeman, which we're featuring here to celebrate his tremendous legacy.]
In Chicago, they all but carry him around in a sedan chair: Von Freeman, the tenor saxophonist who’s educated umpteen young musicians on the bandstand. In 2002, the city named a stretch of E. 75th Street after him, down by the New Apartment Lounge where he’s led Tuesday night jams for decades. Among the folks who came out for the ceremony were jazz guru Steve Coleman, who’d flown in just to honor one of his mentors – one who, like Coleman, knows something about slithering sideways through tricky chords.
Chicagoans reluctantly accept that Von will never get his due, because he’d rather be at home than on the road or in New York. He used to beg off foreign tours because he had an ailing mother. After she passed at 100, he cited the needs of his sickly dog. Freeman didn’t make his first album till he was 50, and it took another five years for fans to coax him over to Europe – where, he claimed later, he was surprised to find they used different money.
Freeman has been working the addled professor shtick for ages, and his music is of a piece, deceptively shambling. He’ll stay so far behind the beat it’s like he forgot to come in, or get so far into a tune’s chords his harmonic logic can seem to dissolve into ambiguities. (He’s so far in, he’s out.) His rube act, the slingshot swing, the harmonic resources so deep he can always pull a fresh line from the harmonies, all make him a deadly foe in tenor battles. The first time I saw him, at New York’s Lincoln Center in 1990, he was kicking the formidable Johnny Griffin‘s ass.
Von in a nutshell: “Bye Bye Blackbird” from Young and Foolish, where he stretches out at length, live in Holland in 1977. You hear what makes him singular as soon as he starts playing the melody; his tone is by turns brawny and vulnerable, a broad blat or a mutter. He starts his solo with a climbing stairstep figure, and before long he gives the illusion of trying to catch up to the passing chords even as he rapidly Ginsu-slices them off. Next come the strangulated, bleating high notes. Freeman has a bluesman’s ear for the expressive uses of off-plumb pitches. There are rapid fluctuations in dynamics, too: He’ll start a phrase almost at a whisper, and come charging back to life before it’s over. Even at a fast clip, he’ll articulate every note in a feathered line.
“I came up at a funny time,” he once told me. “It was the swing era, but then bebop came in, and I had to learn ‘em both. Some of the later guys never had to play swing music. It all still has to swing. If it doesn’t, you’re gonna have problems. The best avant-garde players have a swing thing.
“What I miss when I see some guys out there play: It seems like they’re not having any fun. Like it’s gotten too hip or sophisticated.”
Freeman comes from a musical family, whose best-known member may be his son Chico Freeman, also a saxophonist. In the early 1950s, Von, guitarist George and drummer Bruz had their Freeman Brothers Band. They played with a visiting Charlie Parker; later Von had an unrecorded stint in an early Sun Ra band. He made his first recording backing doo-woppers the Maples in 1954. That’s a broad background.
Freeman made his 1972 debut Doin ‘It Right Now at the instigation of longtime fan Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The band is Von’s first call pianist John Young, early in their association, plus New York bassist Sam Jones and drummer Jimmy Cobb. The playing is typical Von – the fast articulation, honking accents and foghorn tone are all in place – but he atypically features five shapely tunes of his own, alongside Roberta Flack‘s then-current hit “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” (A partial but useful Freeman discography is here.)
He reunited with Cobb on 2003 for the equally strong The Great Divide, with the similarly under-heralded Richard Wyands on piano, and ex-Freemanite John Webber on bass, although Von goes it alone on “Violets for Your Furs.” You might think this unaccompanied improvisation was a nod to the solos-loving Chicago avant-garde, if Coleman Hawkins hadn’t started that tenor tradition with 1948′s “Picasso.” Von is too much of a chords-oriented swing and bop improviser to have embraced free jazz the way Chi’s Fred Anderson did. But Chico put him in more opren settings as guest on his album You’ll Know When You Get There – like Marvin Gaye‘s “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “No. 7.” They both play tenor on the latter tune, Von first; Chico’s tone is notably harder, more Coltrane-modern. Von is also part of a one-day improvisers ‘co-op on 1995′s Fire, joined by his drummer sidekick Michael Raynor, bassist Tatsu Aoki, and Southport Records honchos Bradley Parker-Sparrow on keyboards and Joanie Pallatto on vocals. “Tatsu’s Groove,” “Mode for Von” and “Sudden Duet” are the Freeman picks there – and the last long funk jam incorporating George Clinton samples.
At eMusic, Freeman the tenor jouster is represented only by “Willis and Von” on Lockin ‘Horns, an album he splits with Willis “Gatortail” Jackson. (Freeman’s on the back half only.) He has many more albums than you’ll find on site, but even fans may overlook his many featured appearances on brother George’s soul-jazz albums, such as the slow “My Scenery” and fast “Hoss” (based on “Sweet Georgia Brown”) from 1969′s Birth Sign, the riffy “Happy Fingers” and “Big Finish” on New Improved Funk, “Keeping Swinging Brothers” on At Long Last George rand “Vonski” on 1999′s excellently named George Burns! The guitarist’s pitch-bending, blues-inflected, inside/outside stylings may remind you of a certain Chicago tenor player who grew up in the same house.