“Have you ever ridden a camel?”
The question doesn’t arise often in jazz performances, but it was pertinent Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman posed it.
“A horse walks around in 4/4,” explained Freeman, referring to a musical time signature suggesting a steady gallop.
On a camel, however, “the hump gives you an extra something,” he continued, miming the motion of sitting atop the moving beast. “So I wrote this next song because of the rhythm I felt riding a camel.”
And with that, Freeman and his Plus+Tet launched into “Crossing the Sudan,” its slightly off-kilter meter and unexpected syncopations indeed conveying the idea. Add to that his quartet’s arid textures and the exotic harmonies of the tune, both of which evoked “Caravan,” and you had a most unusual centerpiece to a consistently intriguing first set.
Yes, Freeman is very much his father’s son — meaning the fierce individuality of his work reflects that of Von Freeman, one of the most admired Chicago tenor men (he died in 2012, at age 88). But Chico Freeman reflects the spirit more than the letter of the great Vonski’s art, in that Chico Freeman’s sound is cooler, his tone less keening, his delivery not so hypervirtuosic. Or at least that was the case on this night.
At the same time, though, every piece that Freeman performed was built on unusual melodic structures, unconventional phrase lengths and constantly shifting rhythmic syntax. Nothing he played fell into convenient patterns; everything strove to say something different. And that, of course, stands as a Freeman family signature, upheld to this day by the saxophonist’s uncle, 90-year-old guitarist George Freeman (who will join the ensemble on Sunday).
The most serenely effective moments of the set occurred toward the end, with Chico Freeman’s ballad “Dance of Light for Luani.” Dedicated to his daughter, the tune stood out for its sublimely understated melody. Freeman delivered this valentine with throaty low notes and not a hint of sentimentality, saying a great deal with a few, well-chosen pitches. The simplicity and straightforwardness of this music proved disarming.
In this piece, and others, drummer Rudy Royston played a pivotal role, his work ranging from barely hinted pianissimos to tautly controlled fortissimos. More than anyone else in the band, Royston served as Freeman’s foil. The drummer answered Freeman in some passages, challenged him in others, but constantly responded to the emotional contours of Freeman’s statements.
Bassist Kenny Davis offered a warmly lyrical manner throughout, especially in his opening solo to Antonio Farao’s “Free Man” (from Freeman’s “Spoken Into Existence” album). This was poetry in motion, Davis sustaining an unmistakable line even amid fleetly nimble passagework.
What this quartet needed, however, was more sound and presence from pianist Anthony Wonsey. Without a fuller chordal accompaniment, the band couldn’t project as much tone and color as Freeman’s scores demanded.
Wonsey finally found some energy in Freeman’s “Blues Like,” the set’s finale. Freeman hit hard here, too, his wide-open horn calls and crisply articulated runs finding ample support from drummer Royston and bassist Davis.
If these musicians can summon this degree of common cause earlier in their sets, an already strong performance will become that much more striking.
Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune