Clip: Von Freeman
As Von Freeman proves weekly, a man's New Apartment is his castle
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
Published April 13, 2007
The customers start trickling in at about 10 p.m. every Tuesday,
greeting one another as if they've known each other for years (they
Then, as the clock approaches 10:30, a remarkably youthful looking
octogenarian steps inside, shakes hands with everyone on the
bandstand, schmoozes with a few customers and, finally, opens his
case, pulls out his horn and begins to blow.
The sound -- a tart, squalling cry in the upper registers of his tenor
sax, a big-and-bluesy song down below -- only could belong to Von
Freeman, a Chicago jazz legend if ever there were one.
Listeners queue up to hear the great "Vonski," as he's known to
friends and fans, in nightclubs and concert halls around the world.
But in Chicago, he has played the New Apartment Lounge -- on East 75th
Street -- every Tuesday night for years. Though this city overflows
with great jazz musicians who hold weekly gigs, nowhere does a Chicago
artist with greater reputation perform in a less-pretentious setting
than Freeman's engagement at the New Apartment.
The scene evokes jazz saloons of an earlier era, when Chicago
tenor-sax giants such as Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan
and others routinely played South Side clubs. The rooms were so
intimate and nonchalant that patrons could get close enough to the
music to feel it before hearing it.
These days, most jazz venues flourish downtown or on the North Side,
but Freeman's show at the New Apartment helps keep the South Side
On a recent Tuesday, the club was packed by 11 p.m., with listeners
hanging on every note that Freeman produced in a series of still
astonishingly complex soliloquies. Whether playing ballads or blues,
up-tempo romps or quirky originals, Freeman reaffirmed his status as
one of jazz's great iconoclasts.
"This is a song that only a cat 84 years old can play," Freeman told
the crowd, before launching into a baroque, dancing-around-the-melody
version of "As Time Goes By."
Those who might have expected an archly romantic, steeped-in-velvet
version reminiscent of tenorists Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins were
in for a surprise. For Freeman unfurled lines that quickly darted one
way, then another, his phrases squealing, sighing and sometimes
At the bottom of his instrument, his tone was deep and plush. In the
middle voices and up high, however, Freeman created the keening,
sharply penetrating sound that long has been his hallmark. Throughout,
his intense vibrato and penchant for crafting intricately constructed
phrases pointed to a musician who never has followed jazz convention.
In "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise," Freeman went even further out on
a limb, gleefully deconstructing a tune that had its heyday in his
youth. With each chorus, Freeman pushed into increasingly remote
harmonic territory, his lines as jagged and unpredictable as the bebop
language would allow.
In the set's only ballad, Freeman played with ineffable delicacy and
understatement, expressing a soft-spoken poetry that only could be
savored in a room as small as this.
As always, Michael Raynor played drums, though more crisply and
energetically than ever. Bassist Matt Ferguson and guitarist Alejandro
Urzagaste provided rhythmic surge -- not that Freeman needed any.
As the first set approached its finish, many musicians in the crowd
began opening their own instrument cases, eager to take a shot at
improvising with the master, who invites up-and-comers to join him on
Von Freeman Quartet
The master is in the house
When: 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays
Where: New Apartment Lounge, 504 E. 75th St.
Price: Free; 773-483-7728