Von Freeman, Live at The Dakota, 4 Stars
DownBeat Magazine, August 2001
By Ed Enright

Leave it to a local label like Premonition to finally put out a decent CD by Chicago’s great Von Freeman … even if the recording was made in St. Paul, MN. Taken from two sets in spring of 1996, Live at The Dakota finds the then 73-year-old tenor titan on an absolute tear. Whether playing tough or tender, he sounds better here than he had anywhere – live or on record – in recent years.

The pacing of this disc is superb. Backe by a Twin Cities rhythm section, Freeman comes roaring out the gate with “Bye Bye Blackbird.” He states the 32-bar theme in 40 seconds, then proceeds to blow the house down for more than six minutes. Pianist Bobby Peterson picks up the loose bricks and pieces everything back together before the quartet rides the head into an extended ending with still more soloing. Talk about big opening statements: This one packs the punch of a Bridgeport bar brawl.

In the aftermath, Freeman eases us into the Billie Holiday ballad “Crazy She Calls Me.” Phil Hey’s gentle brush strokes and Freeman’s breathy, spitty tone cast a blanket of calm over the room. Stillness sets in when everyone drops out for a short piano solo. By the time Freeman restates the head and the song ends, you can hardly believe that eight minutes have just passed by.

Freeman then leads the band in Ellington territory with an a cappella solo on “My Little Brown Book.” The others join in during the rubato intro to “Caravan,” which builds momentum like a Loop-bound Windy City el train at rush hour. Freeman colors just outside the lines on “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” flashing his avant-garde chops in moments of anguished blues. When he gets restless, he triples up the time.

Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” puts the band into a slow-swinging trance of sorts. Freeman squels and wails during breaks in the creeping melody line; listening over his shoulder, he can’t help but sense Father Time sneaking up on him. Things get even spookier when Freeman lets loose with a couple of throaty screams in the background.

The disc closes on a more traditional note, with Freeman’s “Blues for Sunnyland.” Be prepared to salivate as he applies jazz substations and turnarounds tastier than grilled onions on a Maxwell Street polish sausage.

In the liner notes, jazz presenter Jon Poses makes an important point about Freeman’s strength as a frontman and entertainer. His easy-going stage banter, which puts both his fellow musicians and live audiences at ease, doesn’t translate well to CD, however. If you’re a Freeman fan, you’ll want to listen to “Live at The Dakota” more than a few times, and his between-tune anecdotes and long introductions get real old after about the third time through. Such chatter is always best left off a CD (or at least kept to a bare minimum). It wouldn’t be so bad if you could simply tap the “skip” button and jump right to the next musical selection, but the track programming here makes that a little tricky.

Nothing personal, Vonski: We’d just rather hear you play.