Guitarist Mike Allemana is a beacon of the Chicago jazz scene who may be equally well-known for his scholarship: He’s an ethnomusicologist who’s researching Windy City icon Von Freeman. Yet there is nothing dry or academic about Vonology. It’s an octet record featuring five Allemana originals, paying tribute to Freeman’s philosophy and spirit—which, as the saxophonist’s bandmate for 15 years, Allemana had ample opportunity to absorb—more than his oeuvre. Maybe that’s why at every turn it feels so vital and arresting.
It feels restless too. Bookended by the sublime, mass-like opener “Welcome. Enter” and closer “The Mentor’s Benediction,” the album veers in between these brackets from moody mystery (“The Mediator”) to tender ballad (“Communion and Renewal”) to stirring suspense (“Libra Channeling”), embracing on equal terms straight-ahead bebop and Freeman’s idiosyncratic avant-garde approach. (That said, “Libra Channeling” bears more than a passing hint of fellow Chicagoan Henry Threadgill’s aesthetic, suggesting perhaps a new breadth to Freeman’s influence.) Allemana himself can turn on a dime from rich mellifluousness to uncertain tonality; so can cellist Tomeka Reid, giving him a partner with whom to interact on (in particular) “The Mediator” and “Communion and Renewal.”
Vonology isn’t billed as a suite per se, but it flows like one. A vocal choir appears on the first and last tracks, but the real choir—or maybe Greek chorus—is in the four-horn line of trumpeter Victor Garcia, trombonist Kendall Moore, and saxophonists Greg Ward and Geof Bradfield. They make gorgeous ensemble statements on each track, then proceed into counterpoint and commentary. At the climax of “The Mentor’s Benediction,” after vocalist Bill Brickey’s quasi-sermon, their freeform chatter becomes akin to a joyful noise (with Allemana joining in for good measure). Surely that’s what Von was after all along.