music clip of the day


Month: August, 2012

Tuesday, 8/21/12

Neneh Cherry & The Thing (Mats Gustafsson, baritone saxophone, electronics; Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, bass; Paal Nilssen-Love, drums)

Live, Austria (Konfrontationen 2012, Nickelsdorf),  7/21/12

“Cashback” (N. Cherry)


“Dirt” (J. Osterburg, R. Asheton, S. Asheton, D. Alexander)



musical thoughts

More and more, it seems, boundaries—race, gender, country, era, genre—mean less and less.

Monday, 8/20/12

more Von Freeman

Live, New Apartment Lounge, 504 E. 75th St., Chicago
With Mike Allemana, guitar, Matt Ferguson, bass; Michael Raynor, drums

“Mr. P.C.” (J. Coltrane, excerpt), 11/30/04


“Blame It on My Youth” (O. Levant & E. Heyman), 6/8/10



Von Freeman, who was considered one of the finest tenor saxophonists in jazz but attained wide fame only late in life, died on Aug. 11 in Chicago. He was 88.

The cause was heart failure, his son Mark said.

Though his work won him ardent admirers, Mr. Freeman, familiarly known as Vonski, was for decades largely unknown outside Chicago, where he was born and reared and spent most of his life.

As The Chicago Tribune wrote in 1998, his playing “represents a standard by which other tenor saxophonists must be judged.”

Last year, Mr. Freeman was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the nation’s highest honor in the field.

Not until the 1980s did he begin performing more often on famous out-of-town stages, including Alice Tully Hall and the Village Vanguard in New York. Earlier in his career Mr. Freeman had made much of his living, as he told The Tribune, playing for “strip joints, taxi dances, vaudeville shows, comedians, jugglers, weddings, bar mitzvahs, jazz clubs, dives, Polish dances, Jewish dances, every nationality.”

If he never got his big break as a young player, Mr. Freeman said, then that was because he never especially sought one.

“I’m not trying to brag or nothing, but I always knew I could play, 50, 60 years ago,” he told The Tribune in 2002. “I really don’t play any different than the way I played then. And I never let it worry me that I didn’t get anywhere famewise, or I didn’t make hit records.”

What he preferred to chasing fame, he said, was playing jazz as he felt it demanded to be played. The result, critics agreed, was music — often dazzling, occasionally bewildering — that sounded like no one else’s.

Mr. Freeman’s playing was characterized by emotional fire (he was so intense he once bit his mouthpiece clean off); a huge sound (this, he said, took root in strip clubs where the band played from behind a curtain); and singular musical ideas.

His work had a daring elasticity, with deliberately off-kilter phrasing that made it sound like speech. He cherished roughness and imperfection, although, as critics observed, he could play a ballad with the best of them.

Where some listeners faulted him for playing out of tune, others praised him for exploiting a chromatic range far greater than the paltry 12 notes the Western musical scale offers.

“Don’t tune up too much, baby,” Mr. Freeman once told a colleague. “You’ll lose your soul.”

His masterly tonal control let him summon unlovely sounds whenever he chose to, and he chose to often. His timbre has been called wheezing, honking, rasping and, in the words of Robert Palmer of The New York Times in 1982, a “billy goat tone” — a description that, as context makes clear, was not uncomplimentary.

Earl LaVon Freeman was born in Chicago on Oct. 3, 1923. (His given name was occasionally spelled Earle.)

His father was a city policeman — a highly unusual job for a black man then — whose beat included the Grand Terrace Ballroom, a storied nightclub. There, Von soaked up the music of Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Earl Hines and other titans of the age.

Young Von pined for a horn, and as luck would have it there was one in the house. The fact that it was attached to his father’s Victrola did not deter him, and one day when he was about 7, he pried it off, drilled holes in it and began to blow.

Deplorable sounds ensued, and his father overheard. “He picked me up, just kind of shook me, then hardly spoke to me for about a year,” Mr. Freeman later told Down Beat magazine. But if only as a deterrent, his father bought him a saxophone.

By 12, Von was playing professionally in Chicago nightclubs, reporting for work armed with a note from his mother. It read, “Don’t let him drink, don’t let him smoke, don’t let him consort with those women, and make him stay in that dressing room.”

He graduated from DuSable High School, a public school famous for its jazz program (other alumni include Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington), and entered the Navy, playing in its jazz band.

After his discharge, Mr. Freeman resumed his career, sitting in with some of the finest musicians to appear in Chicago, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.

He was often invited to join them on the road, but he turned most offers down. He was disinclined to leave home: besides his wife and four children, he had his mother to look after. She had been widowed since Von was a young man, when his father was shot and killed in the line of duty.

In later years, Mr. Freeman played at jazz festivals throughout the United States and Europe. But despite his newfound fame, till nearly the end of his life held court each Tuesday night at the New Apartment Lounge, a small Chicago club where he had performed since the early 1980s. “Vonski’s Night School,” musicians called his sessions there, and young players came from around the world for the chance to sit in with him.

Mr. Freeman’s marriage to Ruby Hayes ended in divorce. Besides his son Mark, he is survived by another son, Chico, a prominent tenor saxophonist, and a brother, George, a jazz guitarist. Two daughters, Denise Jarrett and Brenda Jackson, died before him, as did another brother, Eldridge (known as Bruz), a drummer.

His recordings include “Doin’ It Right Now,” (1972), “Young and Foolish” (1977), “The Great Divide” (2004), “Vonski Speaks” (2009) and, with Chico, “Freeman & Freeman” (1981).

Though Mr. Freeman had not looked for it, renown, when it came, was a vindication.

“A lot of people who didn’t pay a lot of attention to me or to my music started coming around when I was heading to my 80th birthday,” he told The Tribune in 2002. “Now they were saying, ‘Well, Vonski, you’re all right after all.’ ”

Margalit Fox, New York Times, 8/19/12

Sunday, 8/19/12

The Reverend Al testifies.

Al Green, “The Lord Will Make a Way” (and more)
New York (Apollo Theater), 1990

Saturday, 8/18/12


How to be both solid and fluid, both fat and delicate. How to make the beat breathe. These are things that, as a child, Philly Joe Jones began to learn while dancing—tap-dancing. Just watch the way Thelonious Monk, listening to this solo, rocks back and forth (1:25-1:50), as if he’s about to break into a little dance himself.

Philly Joe Jones, live (with Thelonious Monk), 1959



He breathed our history as/his walking beat . . . . The Man/So Hip/A City/Took/His/Name.—Amiri Baraka, Eulogies (1996)

(Originally posted 10/15/09.)

Friday, 8/17/12

two takes

“Moment’s Notice” (J. Coltrane)

McCoy Tyner Quartet (MT, piano; Bobby Hutcherson, vibes; Charnett Moffett, bass; Eric Harland, drums), live, England, 2002


John Coltrane (tenor saxophone, with Lee Morgan trumpet; Curtis Fuller, trombone; Kenny Drew, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones, drums), recording (Blue Train), 1957



random thoughts

Hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, tasting: what sense is missing from our repertoire that, if you came from some other world, you couldn’t imagine living without?

Thursday, 8/16/12

more sounds from Ethiopia

Getatchew Mekurya (tenor saxophone) with The Ex, live, Ethiopia (Hager Fikir Theater, Addis Ababa), 2007

Wednesday, 8/15/12


Umar (AKA Omar) Suleyman (AKA Suleeyman),* live, Ethiopia, c. 2010

This guy I bumped into the other day, as I do so many things, listening to the radio.**


*Not to be confused with Omar Souleyman.

**WFMU-FM (Kaminsky Kamoutsky with Jesse).

Tuesday, 8/14/12


Von Freeman, tenor saxophonist
October 3, 1923-August 11, 2012

Today we remember, and celebrate, Von by revisiting previous posts.



No tenor player moves me more.

“I Can’t Get Started” (excerpt), live, Belgium, 1992


“Blues for Sunnyland,” live, Germany (Berlin), 2002


Live, Chicago, 2009



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.

“Jazz Tilt-A-Whirl,” (review of Von Freeman, Jazz Showcase, 1/13-14/1995), Chicago Reader1/26/1995 (yeah, I’m cannibalizing myself here)


. . . one of the most original and creative tenormen of the 1950s and, in light of other work I’ve heard by him, a great tenor player by any standards.


An exceptional artist, he belongs in jazz’s pantheon.

Harvey Pekar, JazzTimes, 1-2/2001



My favorite tenor player?

A while back, I said that if I had to name my favorite alto player, there would be days where I’d say Art Pepper.

Tenor players?

Some days this’d be the guy.

Like Pepper, he has a sound that’s immediately identifiable. It’s a sound that, like Pepper’s, holds both joy and heartbreak. And like Pepper, he’s hard—no, impossible—to pigeonhole. Swing, bebop, free: the label that’s capacious enough to contain him hasn’t been invented.

Von Freeman, “Lester Leaps In,” live, Chicago (New Apartment Lounge), 2010

Vodpod videos no longer available.



Our music is a Secret Order.

—Louis Armstrong, 1954 (John F. Zwed, Space Is The Place: The Lives And Times Of Sun Ra [1997], epigraph)

Von Freeman (tenor saxophone, with Ed Petersen, tenor saxophone; Willie Pickens, piano; Brian Sandstrom, bass; Robert Shy, drums), live, Chicago (Green Mill Lounge), 12/31/10

Vodpod videos no longer available.



The other night, during a performance and interview at the University of Chicago, he seemed, at times, a bit frail. He’s nearing 90 and was recently in the hospital. But what I said a while back still holds true: no tenor player moves me more.

Von Freeman (tenor saxophone, with Mike Allemena, guitar; Matt Ferguson, bass; Michael Raynor, drums), “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” live, Chicago (Mandel Hall, University of Chicago), 2/24/11

Vodpod videos no longer available.



better late, etc.

The University of Chicago recently awarded Von the Rosenberger Medal, which was established in 1917 . . . [and recognizes] achievement through research, in authorship, in invention, for discovery, for unusual public service, or for anything deemed of great benefit to humanity.” Past recipients include Toni Morrison, Pierre Boulez, and Frederick Wiseman.


musical thoughts

It takes years to explain those vibrational things in verbal language. And it still might not work. One time I asked Von Freeman about his voice-leading in harmony, he’s the master of that shit. I asked him, “How did you learn that shit? You’re so fluent at it.” And he said, “Well, you know, I sat down one day and I said, let me look at this thing.” He said, “I began with one tone. I studied one tone. And I studied all that I could study about one tone.” When these old guys talk, you don’t ask too many questions. You pretty much just listen to what they say. And so, I didn’t know what he meant, but I just listened. And he said, “I worked on that for a long time, you know, for months. Just seeing what could be done with one tone. When I felt pretty good about that, I moved on to two tones. That was a bit harder. I worked a lot longer, but I worked and saw all that I could do with two tones. Then I moved to three tones, and so on. After I went on for a while I realized that you can pretty much do everything that you need to do with two tones.” That’s what he told me. I spent years thinking about this shit. Years. I’m still thinking about it, you know. I feel like I have a better handle on knowing what he meant now than then, although it is not a simple thing to explain. And when I tell the story to somebody playing in my group or something, and they ask me, “What did he mean?” it takes me literally years to explain what I think he means. And I’m sure I only have part of what he means. What it means to me. Some things, you have to explain them with a million examples over a period of time. The meaning dawns on a person and when they have to explain it it’s funny. We live in this McDonald’s type society where everybody thinks everything is just quick. It’s not like that. You have to actually build the understanding, slowly over time. So this thing that Von Freeman explained to me, it sounds like a very simple thing, but it really doesn’t make any sense at all without the experience. It’s maybe fifteen years ago that he told me, and I found it to be absolutely true. I could never explain it in one day, or in a lecture over an hour.

Steve Coleman (whose latest album was named one of the year’s ten best in the 2010 Village Voice Jazz Critics’ Poll)


my back pages

No other musician, in any genre, has meant so much to me in so many ways for so many years. I first heard Von in the mid-70s, when I was in my twenties (and working for Alligator Records) and he was in his fifties. The setting, coincidentally, was the University of Chicago; he opened for Cecil Taylor. I got to know him and booked a few shows for him. In 1977, when I got married, he and pianist John Young played at our wedding ceremony. Later, when I was reviewing live jazz, I wrote a piece about him for the Chicago Reader. Over the last three decades, I’ve listened, avidly, to his growing catalog of albums and seen him live more times than I could count. He is now an old man. And I am getting there.



A charter member of the just-announced (to excitement so deafening it’s inaudible) MCOTD Hall of Fame, he’s being celebrated tonight at a concert, in Chicago’s Millenium Park, featuring musicians who came up under him, including saxophonists Steve Coleman and Eric Alexander.


rewarding the deserving

So often, it seems, when arts awards are announced, my initial reaction is: “Huh?” Not this time. The National Endowment of the Arts just announced their 2012 Jazz Masters Awards, which recognize, with Lifetime Honors“living musicians for career-long achievement.” And the winners are Jack DeJohnette, Jimmy Owens, Charlie HadenSheila Jordan, and Von Freeman.



my back pages

Thirty-five years ago tonight—how could I possibly begin a sentence “thirty-five years ago tonight” and be referring to something that happened when I was, at least nominally, an adult? Well, this actually happened that night so I guess it must be possible. On that cold, clear January night, at a small church thirty miles north of Chicago, Suzanne and I were married. Yes, there was music. Tenor saxophonist Von Freeman and pianist John Young (now gone) played before and after the ceremony. The processional was Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood,” played by Von alone. What did all this sound like? Thanks to my friend (and ace recording engineer) James C. Moore, these sounds can be heard, thirty-five years later, here (M4A—give it a few seconds).



This year, as I’ve mentioned before, Von was awarded, along with bassist Charlie Haden, singer Sheila Jordan, trumpeter Jimmy Owens, and drummer Jack DeJohnette, an NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) Jazz Masters Fellowship—the highest honor that our nation bestows on jazz artists. Here’s the NEA’s video tribute.



Weary of words?

You’ve come to the right place.

These guys take you places words don’t go.

Von Freeman,* tenor saxophone; Clifford Jordan, tenor saxophone (first solo); Willie Pickens, piano; Dan Shapera, bass; Robert Shy, drums; “Oleo” (S. Rollins), live, Chicago (Chicago Jazz Festival), 1988

*MCOTD Hall of Fame (Charter Member).

Monday, 8/13/12

A lot of musicians sound like they’re perfectly happy to be right where they are. Not this guy—he seems intent on getting somewhere else.

Art Pepper (alto saxophone), with Milcho Leviev (piano), Tony Dumas (bass), Carl Burnett, drums; “Caravan,” conversation, and more; Norway, 1980

Sunday, 8/12/12

back to church

“Sending Up My Timber,” Male Choir, Macedonia Baptist Church, North Carolina, c. 2008

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