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Von Freeman, Jazz’s Philosopher King

August 13, 2012

It was a great honor, truly, to be able to contribute liner notes to three Von Freeman albums. Abbreviated and slightly revised, here’s what I wrote for The Improviser (2002, Premonition), capping wonderful tributes by Kevin Whitehead, John Corbett and Neil Tesser:

Though his being and essence is best expressed through his horn, you don’t have to hear Von Freeman play to get on his wavelength. All you have to do is watch him come out onstage, halfway between a shuffle and a swagger, a smile and a smirk, his boyish twinkle uncontained by his dark glasses and undiminished by his advancing years.

Van moves deliberately, not only in obeisance to Father Time, not only because physical wear and tear does take its toll – especially when you’ve been shouldering an oversized gift and equally oversized sense of generosity as long as he has. His unrushed body language also lets you know that he proceeds at his own pace, in life as well as in performance. Here is a man who is secure in his own skin, beyond the plaudits, beyond second guesses about how high his star would have risen had he set his clock to New York time, beyond the misfortune of those Chicagoans who can’t recognize genius in their midst. Here is an artist who saves the footloose energy for his solos, which dash up hills and slither through valleys, leap from shrieking skyscrapers and barrel through honking urban canyons.

He may not know it, and certainly wouldn’t profess it, but Von is a philosopher. His philosophy is the philosophy of sly. If he can’t goose a theme, it doesn’t interest him. His philosophy is the philosophy of “Go!” He never plays licks, never falls back on preconceived notions, never does anything but reach for revelation. His philosophy, dare I  say it, is the philosophy of joy. Good times, straight ahead – and many times, not so straight!

One can only wonder, with some degree of trepidation, what Chicago jazz would be like had Von not come along to provide such a steadfast example of being uncompromisingly true to oneself, to one’s inner voice, to making that as natural as making love or drinking water. And doing all that with a shuffle and a swagger, a smile and a smirk, entertaining as he inspires. All hail jazz’s philosopher king, and all attend to the lessons with which the man called Vonski continues to endow us.

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