Unlike many “elder statesmen” who survive mostly on memory and past accomplishments, Chicago’s octogenarian tenor saxophone master Von Freeman remains in full command of his facilities. New ideas seem to burst into life when he plays, and both his physical prowess and his imaginative fire are undiminished. This set, consisting mostly of obscure ballads and midtempo, blues-influenced pop tunes from the ’40s and ’50s, might seem an unlikely vehicle, but true to form, Freeman mines new gems from even the most unlikely soil.
His angular, probing lines set against his trademark elastic intonation create a vivid tension. He alternates sepia-toned meditations with sharp upper-register salvos and occasional overtone screams that break apart into what feels almost like chaos before coming back together, reshaped and recolored, like shards in an aural kaleidoscope. In his own way he’s also as rhythmically propulsive as any of his bebop contemporaries, but you have to listen carefully to catch him at it: He uses silence as if it were a drum, creating empty spaces between phrases—sometimes between individual notes—that propel his lines relentlessly forward.
Drummer Jimmy Cobb and bassist John Webber swing unerringly and unobtrusively throughout; pianist Richard Wyands lacks Freeman’s improvisational imagination, but he’s adept at creating spacious harmonic realms in which the leader can cavort and swirl, and his own solo work is concise and understated. The result is a set that resonates with the kind of musical sophistication and emotional depth that take years of living and playing to develop, yet also sparkles with an almost childlike sense of wonder and ebullience.