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Von Freeman: The Great Divide

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Von Freeman is representative of a rapidly depleting national resource, not only because he is a direct living connection to Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Lester Young, but also because he possesses two precious attributes: individuality and style.

For most jazz players, notes are dots that are connected, often skillfully and creatively, to get from point A to point B. When perpetrated by Freeman, notes are meaningful, considered, consciously placed separate events, nuanced and inflected into expressive gestures of communication. Freeman’s style is vast, encompassing so much jazz history, so many disparate, even contradictory sonorities. In a Chicago-based career touching seven decades, Freeman has played with Coleman Hawkins, Sun Ra, Jimmy Reed, and the house bands of Calumet City strip clubs. All those experiences are embedded in Freeman’s wailing, caressing, shrieking, quavering, oddly organized phrases.

Now 82, Freeman was 80 when he made The Great Divide, and it is one of his strongest albums ever. For the first time in his career, he recorded with a New York rhythm section. Pianist Richard Wyands, bassist John Webber, and drummer Jimmy Cobb provoke and inspire him. Cobb’s “smooth way of playing time” (Freeman’s apt description) illuminates this entire session with elegant energy. The program contains profound, convoluted, soul-baring ballads (“Be My Love,” “This Is Always”), startling one-chord modal abstractions (“Chant Time”), pedal-to-the-metal races across “I Got Rhythm” changes (“Never Fear, Jazz Is Here”) and deep, slow blues (“Blue Pres,” a tribute to Young’s “Blue Lester,” from 1944). But the most memorable piece is the closing seven-minute solo performance of “Violets for Your Furs.” It takes Freeman a long time to get to the song, but when he does he wrings it out, alone, in outbursts of double-time and in meditative, lingering considerations of the melody and its personal, poignant implications.