A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

Von Freeman
Von Freeman                          Michael Wilderman©2009

A few weeks ago on a warm, hazy Sunday afternoon I was standing next to jazz critic Larry Kart in Grant Park, waiting for Von Freeman start his set at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival. (Full Disclosure: for 25 years I was a member of the CJF programming committee, but I retired from the committee after the 2007 fest.)  Von – there’s something about his personality, so charming and disarming, that the first-name familiarity is the only way to refer to him – was taking it slow and easy, teasing the audience, killing time as the stage crew tested the microphones and the band tuned up. Finally they kicked off an uptempo blues, and with no acknowledgement that it was time to go to work, he casually stepped forward, ever-so-slightly adjusted his tenor…and launched, with a Mercurial swagger,into one of those characteristic Vonski solos – sizzling notes sliding perpendicularly through the chord changes like a man swimming sideways against the tide, the end of a particularly urgent ascending phrase punctuated with a brief banshee wail, melody twisted into chorus after chorus of multiple Cubist perspectives. A few especially audacious ideas slipped through his fingers – he’s 87 after all (as of October 3rd), and I suspect his reflexes aren’t what they used to be at, say, 75, but I can’t think of another saxophonist half his age who plays with his intensity or panache. No one sounds like Von Freeman.

So the rest of the band took their solos, they ended the tune, and then Von, after a sly, seductive speech dedicating the next song to all the ladies in the audience, started to whisper “Don’t Blame Me” through the tenor saxophone as if he were serenading a child to sleep. He sustained this hushed air through several choruses, each more elliptical than the last, without breaking the fragile, spider-web thread of melody, and as I listened it occurred to me this wasn’t about notes, or moving his fingers, or even the tenor saxophone any longer – it was about song as emotion pure and simple, a state of mind, an act of possession.

As he finished, as tenderly and wistfully as he had begun, I looked at Larry, and we exchanged the same stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look and satisfied smile, and shook our heads. I bent over and said in his ear “I can’t believe anyone could have the audacity to even try and play a solo after that,” but they did…try, that is. Von’s longtime sidekick, the late pianist John Young, would have known how to subtly shift the mood to another level, but those days are gone.  I knew the rest of the set was going to recreate the jam sessions Von hosts weekly at the New Apartment nightclub, meaning a parade of horn players and vocalists would invade the stage, with Von serving as gracious emcee, allowing him to relax. I had heard all I needed to hear. I walked away from the bandstand, carrying the lasting beauty of those two solos inside me.

What was special about this experience was that there was nothing exceptionally special about it; it was just another day at the office for Vonski, who has crafted countless solos of similar daring and elegance over a lifetime of risky endeavors. Neighborhood gig or worldwide festival appearance, it’s all the same. It’s what he does. He’s the Gerard Manley Hopkins of jazz – the poet whose lines stretch beyond the boundary of breath and who finds music in the accumulated awkward cadences and hard shards of language, simultaneously celebrating “All things counter, original, spare, strange; / Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) / With swift, slow, sweet, sour; adazzle, dim….”

Von’s solos are known for being contrary, original, and strange, if hardly spare. Fortunately, since his “discovery” by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who produced his debut album as a leader, Doin’ It Right Now on Atlantic, in 1972, there have been plenty of recordings where you can hear just how original he is. My personal favorites include the early albums on Nessa, Have No Fear and Serenade & Blues, both recorded during a single night’s session in 1975, and Walkin’ Tuff! on Southport, which includes a breathtaking nine-minute soliloquy on “How Deep is the Ocean.” But there’s something vital, something generous, something inexhaustible, audible within every album he’s made. In part, it’s his ability to redirect a solo on even overly-familiar changes into terra incognita. Von’s tone, too, is his own; pinching it tight or breathing through it affords him an expressive palette of colors (on this particular Sunday, it was ripe and slightly nasal, more of a bassoon tone than that of a tenor saxophone), and his harmonic breadth includes microtones and tonal ambiguities resolved in ways that Harry Partch, much less Schönberg, never dreamt of.

When I was on the Festival’s programming committee, I’d bring up his name every year at one of our meetings, despite the fact that we tried to maintain a policy whereby we wouldn’t repeat a band or featured musician two years in a row – the theory being there are so many deserving musicians in Chicago we needed to spread the gigs around. My rationale was: if Lester Young lived in town, would you be willing to go a year without hearing him at the Festival? It didn’t always work, but the advantage of living in Chicago was the opportunity to hear Von in clubs around town throughout the year, up close and personal. Really close. Kevin Whitehead and I once sat at a table approximately eighteen inches from the bell of Von’s horn at Andy’s on Hubbard. What we heard that night, and so many others, reminds me of Edwin Denby’s description of Balanchine’s choreography to Stravinsky’s music, which, he wrote, “…is like a conversation in Henry James, as surprising, as sensitive, …as full of slyness and fancy. The joyousness of it is the pleasure of being civilized…. This is where we are and this is what the mind makes beautiful.”

Art Lange©2009

New World Records

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