Preposterous Universe

Sunday, May 02, 2004
Von & Fred

We saw a fantastic concert at the HotHouse on Friday featuring Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, two legendary Chicago tenor saxophone players. Both of them have spent their lives playing in Chicago, rather than moving to New York and doing a lot of recording; consequently, either could reasonably claim the title of "most underappreciated living saxophonist." The occasion was Fred's 75th birthday, making him the younger of the two, as Von is going on 82. And they can both play like nobody's business.

Von I know very well, and it's a surprise that I've gotten this far in the blog without ever mentioning him -- I'll have to rectify that at length sometime soon. But I had never heard Fred Anderson live, and it was quite an experience. Von is the consummate showman, telling stories and flirting with the crowd, and one of the most compelling features of his music is how he mixes beautifully accessible melody and harmony with exciting and challenging free-jazz explorations. Fred, in contrast, is all intensity and concentration. Listening to Von is like driving in a convertible through mountain roads where surprising vistas can suddenly appear around the corner, whereas listening to Fred is like taking the bullet train. Or maybe jumping out of an airplane.

Fred's band is just a trio -- him, bass, and drums. He stands up on stage, short and stooped to begin with, and gradually leans forward as he begins to play. Pretty soon his upper body is nearly horizontal, as he is surrounding the sax and blowing with fierce determination. The notes come quickly and relentlessly, as he spins out impossibly long lines without noticeable pause. I was talking with Michael Raynor, Von's drummer, who was scoping out the room to see how people were reacting. We agreed that anyone could enjoy Von's style, but you would appreciate it much more if you were really into the music; but to enjoy Fred you needed to be into it from the start. I am definitely into it, and I'll have to make sure to drop by Fred's club, the Velvet Lounge, more often. The only regret was that Von and Fred played separate sets, rather than jamming together; that I would have definitely loved to see.

Fred has a new CD just out; Von has one coming in July. It's a great pleasure to listen to these two men who give so much to their music, their fellow musicians, and their city.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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