George and Chico Freeman: Family Business

Father and son uphold more than one jazz legacy

Chico Freeman in Chicago
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George Freeman in Chicago
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George (l.) and Chico Freeman
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Jazz has its share of royal families, including Heath brothers Percy, Jimmy and Tootie, from Philadelphia; Hank, Thad and Elvin Jones, from the Detroit area; New Orleans’ Marsalis and Batiste clans; Wes, Buddy and Monk Montgomery, from Indiana; and the Tampa-born Adderleys, Cannonball and Nat. In Chicago, a royal jazz bloodline runs through several generations of the Freemans.

That lineage goes way back to George Freeman, father to guitarist George, Windy City tenor titan Von and drummer Eldridge “Bruz,” and grandfather to Chico, also an acclaimed saxophonist, based in Switzerland in recent years.

About those long-established Freeman family bona fides: The elder Freeman, a Chicago cop and pianist, and his wife, a singer and guitarist, became close with Louis Armstrong, who stayed with the family when Pops first came to Chicago in the early ’20s. Von was a revered saxophone hero and mentor at home and abroad. George, now 88, played with the likes of Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Dexter Gordon, making a splash in New York but ultimately returning home.

The Freemans’ musical legacy-the family’s and that of Chicago jazz, heavily influenced by the blues and the innovations of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)-is celebrated in royal style on All in the Family (Southport). The recording, co-led by George and Chico, finds the uncle and nephew joined by various associates, including guitarist Mike Allemana, pianist Kirk Brown, bassist Harrison Bankhead, drummers Hamid Drake and Joe Jenkins and percussionist Reto Weber.

“The idea of All in the Family didn’t extend only to my uncle and me-it’s also the Chicago family,” says Chico Freeman, 66. He’s seated in a second-floor alcove at the Hard Rock Hotel on Michigan Avenue, not far from Millennium Park, where the Freemans and company aired out the music from their CD with an engaging performance at the Chicago Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend. “I wanted Chicago musicians because I wanted that spirit and that feeling that I knew, that I didn’t have to talk about.”

George is experiencing a late-career renaissance, via road shows everywhere from New York to Key West, and Chicago performances with a two-guitar quartet featuring Allemana. “I don’t know where it’s coming from,” George says a few days later, from his home on Chicago’s South Side. “But things are getting better and better. I’m surprised. I’m excited.” He first played with his nephew in the early ’70s, at a celebrated South Side club called Transitions East, since vanished. At the time, Chico wasn’t sure whether his uncle would take to the experimental-leaning vibe of the gig.

“I had had some experience with some other musicians who played in the more straight-ahead, traditional manner and found themselves in open situations, and they weren’t able to adapt, to express themselves. And I was a little afraid that my uncle might fall into that category,” Chico recalls. “But he blew my mind. He came and he played just amazingly. He was just a total musician. That changed my mind about everything. From that point on, I had the greatest amount of respect for him. And I found out that his whole mindset and approach was not limited.”

Flash forward to September 2014, when the two played together again at the Englewood Jazz Festival in Chicago, embarking on rehearsals and the recording of All in the Family shortly thereafter. The sessions were casual, spread over a couple of weeks at the digs shared by Southport Records label heads Joanie Pallatto and Bradley Parker-Sparrow. The Freemans and their bandmates recorded 22 tracks’ worth of original tunes and improvised interludes. The original music, both older and newly written, travels stylistically from mainstream to Latin and experimental, all imbued with a certain blues tinge. Included on the album are pieces George wrote for his brother (“Vonski”) and his nephews (“Chico” and “Marko”). The ballad “My Scenery” stems from the period when, in his early 20s, George traveled to New York with saxophonist Johnny Griffin. Chico’s “Dark Blue” was inspired by Ellington’s music.

It’s varied but not purposely eclectic, Chico says. “My objective with this project was to touch on some of the important and creative areas that I’ve done, and my uncle has done. The unifying factor is the originality of Chicago in those areas. There’s that free-expression, complete-improvisation aspect. There’s that Chicago groove thing that happens, a little bit of R&B. It’s not R&B, per se, but the flavor of certain things that we all have played.”

Inspired by the reception for All in the Family and the performances they’ve already given, the two are aiming for a more ambitious touring schedule next summer and fall, Chico says. He’s eager to perform and record even more music created specifically for this ensemble. George is looking forward to taking his music to more people, following a slowdown that began after Von’s death in 2012. “It’s been a fantastic year,” he says. “This is the peak of my career. I didn’t ask for it-it just happened.”

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