Von Freeman Quartet with Robert Henry Johnson | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Von Freeman Quartet with Robert Henry Johnson




What becomes a legend most? In the case of Von Freeman, whose reputation began to spread beyond Chicago about 30 years ago and has yet to retreat, it's a willingness to go beyond the tried-and-true: this performance will place him and his quartet onstage with San Francisco dancer and choreographer Robert Henry Johnson for a unique improvised pas de cinq. Freeman grew up with swing music, but the powerful lure of bebop--along with the avant-garde winds whipped up in mid-50s Chicago by his sometime employer Sun Ra--led him to develop one of the most individualistic tenor-saxophone styles in all of jazz. It starts with his wily and unmistakable tone, which lacks the chunkiness that John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins once made de rigueur for tenorists; it's cloaked and reedy, slightly wounded, with a variable vibrato and a sweet-and-sour twist; it laughs and cries at the same time. The hyperexpressionism that would become an integral part of most Chicago free jazz was born in Freeman's horn; and while he's never abandoned tunes or chords, his chattering, untethered, and often epic solos push hard against the boundaries of structure and harmony, running through a dozen ideas in the space where most might explore just one. Few local musicians have been so roundly and deservedly lionized; but for newcomers, Kurt Elling's story-poem description of Freeman as "the great screaming rabbi" pretty well sums it up. Johnson's choreography has a puckish exuberance to match Freeman's own: he frequently draws on the schematics of cartoonery, and some of his moves suggest Martin Short's Ed Grimley character after a few ballet lessons. But Johnson's art hangs on a grand androgynous sensuality, which never completely disappears. I've seen a few of his dance works, and they cleverly convey the illusion of spontaneity; if he improvises as well as he writes, this thing just might work. Monday, 7:30 PM, main stage, Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted; 312-335-1888. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marc PoKempner.

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