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Mighty torrent of sound flows from the late Von Freeman’s best albums

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Updated: September 20, 2012 9:57AM

Von is gone! Long Live Von!

One of the last original hipsters and an icon of old-school values who embraced the concept of stentorian individual expression, tenor saxist Earle Lavon Freeman left us early Aug. 12 for the cosmic jam session beyond the clouds.

Born into a musical family on Oct. 3, 1923, his mother a guitarist and church singer, his father a Chicago cop and amateur trombonist; brothers George, a guitarist and “Bruz” a drummer, Von started early. One of his first gigs was with bluesman Sunnyland Slim. Another storied Chicago tenorman, Gene Ammons, was Freeman’s classmate at Du Sable High School under feared and revered bandleader Capt. Walter Dyett.

During the ’40s, Freeman worked with the big band of Horace Henderson, the U.S. Navy Hellcats and for a short spell with Sun Ra after a four-year stint as acting house band at the Pershing Hotel between 1946 and 1950. During this time, he performed with such greats as Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. The Freeman brothers band included at various times such distinctive pianists as Chris Anderson, Ahmad Jamal, Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill.

In the ’60s, Freeman performed rhythm and blues with Gene Chandler, Jimmy Reed and Otis Rush, and then began to refocus on jazz, recording his debut for Atlantic “Doing It Right Now” at the instigation of Rahsaan Roland Kirk in 1972.

Freeman’s recording career has been less prolific than his regular appearances at South Side haunts the Enterprise, El Matador and the New Apartment Lounge might warrant, not to mention occasional jaunts to Paris, New York and Berlin. But thanks to the attention of faithful local labels Nessa, Southport, Premonition and Delmark, his voice lives on.

In recent years, he received an honorary masters degree from Northwestern, the Rosenberg Medal from the University of Chicago and earlier this year, the NEA’s coveted Jazz Masters Award,accepted on his behalf at New York’s Lincoln Center by sons Mark and Chico, due to his own failing health.

His last live ap­pearance playing the saxophone was at Andy’s, 11 E. Hubbard, last November. In September 2011, he presided over six sets of music at the Green Mill. For the final set, rather than play, he embarked on an episodic narrative, almost as long as one of his herculean saxophone solos, pointedly concerning his rivalry with the better-known Ammons. “I would play all these super-fast notes and thought I had it,” recalled Freeman, “and then Jug [Ammons] would play just one note, and the room would be silent.”

To those of us won over time and again by myriad spectacular, wildly unpredictable, hyper-expressive pronouncements from Freeman, including some nonpareil balladry, the point was moot, and the hole now left by his departure is too huge to quantify.

The following are selections from more than a score of recordings Freeman made as a leader, plus commentary, specific and general from those in the know. Though nothing can replace witnessing Vonski at his long-running Tuesday night jams at the New Apartment Lounge, pin back your ears for the torrents of feeling still available here:

Walkin’Tuff!” (Southport, 1989)

Urban hollers don’t get more histrionic than the mountainous mewls that herald this CD’s eponymous track. It’s a class-action sonic onslaught from Freeman seemingly burdened more with anguish than defiance.

Joanie Pallatto, co-producer: “I was at Von’s gig at Andy’s, talking to a woman about the upcoming release, and she insisted that the word ‘tough’ was much too formal, so ‘tuff’ it was.”

Michael Raynor, longtime Freeman drummer: “I heard several stories of Von throwing troublemakers out of the club with one hand, saxophone still in the other. For such a sensitive balladeer, he was a bad-ass! And I think that raised his stock with a lot of the men that hung around the Apartment Lounge — myself included.”

Strata Institute, “Transmigration” (DIW, 1991)

Steve Coleman, a fervent Freeman devotee, invited his mentor to join him on this quixotic M-Base meets swing release, featuring Greg Osby, guitarist Marcus Gilmore and drummer “Smitty” Smith. The unique, stacked refractions of Freeman’s lines are part of his legacy further distilled in the music of Coleman and Osby; see how he adapts to the demands of Coleman’s rhythmical strategies on “Minor Step,” generating great tension and excitement.

“Never Let Me Go” (Steeplechase, 1992)

With his gorgeous tone and poignant rendering of the title track, Von is at his most accessible in the company of late greats Jodie Christian and Wilbur Campbell — but then listen to extraordinary moments of belligerence in his solo on “It Could Happen to You.”

Joanie Pallatto: “The three Steeplechase releases weren’t recorded in Paris as listed; all 20 songs were recorded in the space of two days at Southport studios in Chicago. While [partner Bradley Parker-Sparrow] was setting up mikes for the session, [Steeplechase honcho] Nils Winther asked, ‘So, who is going to be the engineer?’ I seized the opportunity and said, ‘I am!’ The rest is … history.”

“Vonski Speaks” (Nessa, 2009)

Recorded at Berlin Jazz Festival in 2002 at the behest of artistic director John Corbett, this captures Freeman’s then regular New Apartment Lounge band.

As fun as the recorded music is, including Von’s then-popular extrapolations on “Summertime” and “Darn That Dream,” Premonition Records producer Michael Friedman claims that Freeman’s hourlong sound check was at the highest level he ever heard him. “Vonski was in top form in Berlin in 2002, the man of the hour, utterly relaxed and commanding,” Corbett recalled. “I congratulated him after the gig, asked how long he was staying. ‘Oh, I gotta go right back, I have a gig out west,’ he told me. I figured he was playing somewhere in western Germany or France. Later I discovered he had a concert the following night on the West Side of Chicago. Hilarious, totally Von. Every gig a blessing.”

“You Talkin’ to Me” (Delmark, 2000)

A generation spanning tussle between 21-year-old tenorist Frank Catalano and the feisty, then 76-year-old Freeman. “I remember driving Von home after recording at Delmark and having the most meaningful conversation of my life,” recalled Catalano. “I can say without question that Von Freeman was the deepest, kindest, most intelligent, most spiritual person that I have ever met. I talked with Von at length about the feeling we get when we play. These aren’t simple happy-/sad-type feelings — they are so powerful as if the energy of the universe is in your body. When we played the Chicago Jazz Fest together shortly after the recording, we both played our hearts out and felt great. Then when we finished and the adrenaline wore off, my fingers wouldn’t stop spasming, and Von’s lips were bleeding like crazy. Even though we were both in pain, that energy from the universe, or beyond, gets in you, and it’s so special. That is why his music was so amazing, the universe loves him.”

Also check out a more seasoned confrontation with another tenorman, Ed Petersen, on “Von and Ed” (Delmark, 1999).

“The Improvisor” (Premonition, 2001)

Freeman’s regular sidemen are augmented by New York heavies Jason Moran, Nasheet Waits and Mark Helias for three live sets at the Chicago Cultural Center, the New Apartment Lounge and the Green Mill. Despite fine support, a highlight is Freeman’s resonant, a cappella “If I Should Lose You,” recorded beneath the dome of the Preston Bradley Hall.

“Good Forever” (Premonition Records, 2006)

Freeman’s last recording, after a successful run with Premonition, and his third record date with venerable drummer Jimmy Cobb. I accompanied Freeman to the session at New York’s legendary Avatar studio and can attest that we caught a dawn flight from Chicago, and he barely ate a banana the whole day. Such legends of Freeman’s stamina were substantiated by Friedman during the sessions that yielded “The Great Divide” (Premonition, 2004): “We had an early slot at 8 a.m. for Von to put down a solo cut in the studio. It seemed unlikely he would comply, but immediately said yes and played ‘Violets for Your Furs’ with incredible tone, technique and feeling — first thing in the morning!”

For an example of a quintessential Freeman original, check out the frenetic “Never Fear, Jazz Is Here” from this recording. Also enjoy the sprightly spoken cues for each band member at the kick-off: bassist John Webber, for example, receives the nifty nickname “Website.”

Michael Jackson is a locally based free-lance writer and critic.

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