Chicago tenor saxophone giant Von Freeman died in 2012, at age 88, but he remains a significant figure in jazz here and beyond.
The latest evidence comes in the form of After Dark: A Von Freeman Tribute, a band of Freeman acolytes who celebrate the master’s outsized legacy in contemporary ways.
Featuring three top Chicago saxophonists with guitarist Mike Allemana, bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Dana Hall, After Dark has been preaching the gospel of Vonski since May of last year.
“Basically, I curated the Von Freeman tribute JazzCity concerts last year, with Lauren Deutsch and Miguel de la Cerna,” explains Allemana, who’s writing his doctoral dissertation on the Freeman family’s impact on jazz.
“This band was meant to talk about the early music that informed him, mostly saxophonists, like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker.”
Saxophonist Geof Bradfield put the ensemble together, says Allemana, and its work proved intriguing enough for Andy’s Jazz Club to feature the band regularly last year.
Starting March 5, the ensemble will play at 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. Tuesdays at Andy’s, 11 E. Hubbard St., the front line featuring reedists Bradfield, Rajiv Halim and Scott Burns.
Why three saxophonists to honor one?
“Since we were doing Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, wanted to have two tenors and an alto,” says Allemana.
Parker, of course, was arguably the greatest alto saxophonist in jazz, while Hawkins and Young established early vocabularies for the tenor horn. Freeman came under the spell of all three, their music profoundly influencing his, especially in the opening chapters of his career – before he fully developed his idiosyncratic, fiercely individual tone, pitch and improvisational techniques.
Allemana, who performed prolifically with Freeman, points out that though After Dark plays mostly repertoire that Freeman heard in his youth, nostalgia is not the goal. Quite the contrary.
“It’s an exploration of saxophone history through what Von would have lived through,” says Allemana.
“It’s a historical project of what Von has talked about as were his favorite songs and solos that were the most powerful for him as a young player. But we’ve experimented with this music, where we’re not approaching it stylistically. We’re playing the songs the way we would playing anything we would play.
“Dana is experimenting, adding his rhythmic touches to it,” adds Allemana, referring to the versatile drummer, who’s director of jazz studies at DePaul University.
Over time, “The saxophonists have become tighter and more of a voice,” says Allemana. “And the songs have really taken on a life of their own through creative possibilities that all the musicians bring to the table.”
As for the future, the musicians of After Dark – which is named for a Freeman composition – plan to dig into music the saxophonist played with Sun Ra, as well as repertoire from the Fletcher Henderson book that impacted brothers Von and guitarist George Freeman. Then, too, the band hopes to record later this year.
All of which raises the question of why musicians should explore the roots of an artist who never quite received the fame he deserved, even though he earned the admiration of listeners and was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2012.
“Because Von was so powerful a presence in people’s lives and as a musician locally here in Chicago,” says Allemana.
“To understand how powerful he was, you have to take him apart a little bit and figure out what are the things that he listened to, what made him go in the directions he did.
“There’s a lot of music that isn’t played anymore that shaped him, and he shaped people who came after.”