Jazz Institute of Chicago

Von Freeman: The Improvisor

Von Freeman: The Improvisor

As the release of "The Improvisor" almost coincided with Von Freeman's 80th birthday, it is difficult not to think of it as a birthday present. But it is also a treat for his fans who get to hear him in three different and complementing situations.

The party opens with an unaccompanied solo version of "If I Should Lose You," which shows that the legendary figure has lost none of his stamina. Then, we get to hear Vonski with his regular cohorts and in his natural element at the New Apartment Lounge where he jams every Tuesday—this should prove to be an invaluable document years from now. He is accompanied by Mike Allemana, one of the most discreet guitar players in town, drummer Michael Raynor, mostly known for his stint with Kurt Elling, and the versatile John Zara on bass, who has performed with musicians as diverse as Tim Daisy or Dave Onderdonk.

They start with Von's own spirited "Ski-wee", followed by a meteoric version of "What Is This Thing Called Love?". Then, the quartet slow down but keep the emotion intact on "Darn That Dream," and a beautiful "Blue Bossa"—the popular Kenny Dorham composition—where Von Freeman gets a very sensual support from his collaborators.

The cherry on the cake is a special session organized by producer Michael Friedman at the Green Mill with rising star Jason Moran on piano, and his trio (Mark Helias on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums.) The two tracks kept from the session enable us to seize what an improvisor Von Freeman really is, performing with musicians he had not met before and playing material he was unfamiliar with, such as the little known Duke Ellington's "I Like The Sunrise"—the other piece being Von's "Blues For Billie."

Throughout this delightful recording, we are reminded of Von Freeman's originality. His husky tone and legato phrasing. His somewhat slurred delivery which allows him to be so eloquent and fluent. His unpredictability that keeps his cohorts on their toes. And, his untamed love for the blues.

I should finally mention the liner notes by some of Chicago's best writers (John Corbett, Kevin Whitehead, Neil Tesser and Lloyd Sachs,) which are full of insights and exquisite anecdotes.—Alain Drouot

Available on Premonition Records, www.premonitionandmusic.com.