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Von Freeman: The Improvisor

Happiness is a new Von Freeman CD. The Improvisor was recorded in 2002 and it appears just as the tenor saxophonist turns 80. Widespread recognition came late for Freeman, who has been performing since his teens, but better late than never, for he is certainly a major artist.

This disc has an unusual program, beginning with an a cappella, rubato “If I Should Lose You” that has truly touching elaborations of the theme. If there is a lot of unrelieved double-timing on “Blue Bossa” and unvaried dotted eight-16th phrasing on the fast “What Is This Thing Called Love?” there is also a lot of genuine melodic invention and singular Freeman twists (such as the extensive flatted “Blue Bossa” passages) on The Improvisor. On “Blues for Billie” hear the long, wavery high note and toppling phrase that begin Freeman’s third chorus-a desperate anguish emerges from the utterly unique sound of his tenor and his dynamics. (By contrast, imagine the fierce way Gene Ammons would have played this chorus.) And hear Freeman’s ever-renewing melodic creativity on the fast, moon-high “Ski-wee,” especially in his chase choruses. Both performances are first-class, approaching the quality of Freeman’s great Have No Fear (Nessa, 1975; now on CD from Japan’s Bomba) and Serenade and Blues (Nessa, 1975; reissued on CD by England’s Chief).

Freeman’s style, born in Hawkins and Young, has absorbed much of the modern tenor tradition, from Ammons to Coltrane, without lapsing into eclecticism. Freeman’s most personal qualities are his melodic fertility, his sharp-flat sound and his ever-active sense of drama, including recurring sections in which melodic lines alternate with high passages that careen beyond the chord changes. These inside-outside contrasts are largely absent in the closing duet “I Like the Sunrise,” Freeman’s sensitive response to the mingled hope and doubt of Ellington’s theme.

There are a few brief solos by the accompanists. Guitarist Mike Allemana is not quite in Freeman’s league, but drummer Michael Raynor plays with consistent good taste and imagination. Pianist Jason Moran tries to emulate the leader’s freedom on his own blues solo, with odd, amusing results.

Once again Von Freeman has made an outstanding album; don’t miss The Improvisor.

Originally Published