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October 31, 2003

Jazz torch passed to next generation at HotHouse

Von Freeman and Jason Moran, jazz stars of different eras, co-headlined an epic on Saturday night, October 18, at HotHouse. Jazz's past, present, and future were all celebrated with equal vigor. The set was, in many ways, endemic of a recent trend on the jazz scene: older, almost-forgotten musicians savoring the glow of second lives as mentors to many of the most influential young players of today. Von Freeman, the venerable tenor-playing godfather of Chicago jazz, was never relegated to complete obscurity, but he belongs to the legion of elder jazzmen that were never deified. Jazz music, with its emphasis on soloing, lends itself to the cult of personality; jazz's story is often written as the history of great men. Luminaries like Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Monk, and Davis cast such long shadows across the music that sometimes they obscure the radiant glows of those who were not so exalted.

The rise of a new crop of musicians, artists immersed in tradition yet not shackled by it, has seen a reappraisal of jazz history. Save a few survivors, the great men of the jazz pantheon died out long ago. Their absence created a void in leadership; jazz had been robbed of its sacred wells of tradition, men who had been counted on to cultivate the new crop. Into this void stepped men like Von Freeman, Barry Harris, and Jason Moran's musical father, Jaki Byard.

While on stage, Freeman seduced the crowd with a combination of charm and chops. At the age of 81, his tenor has a richness and exuberance that can sail through up-tempo material and dig into the romance and anguish of a ballad with equal skill. His playing skirted elements of the avant-garde. Freeman has done tours of duty with Sun Ra and Andrew Hill, while retaining a swaggering and earthy Chicago sound. Freeman was undisputedly the star of his band, but he made a point of giving his bassist, Matt Freeman, and his drummer, Michael Raynor, vehicles to showcase their formidable talents. Savoring the spotlight at the end of his career, Freeman seemed all too glad to reciprocate the admiration that his band and the young jazz world so visibly show for him.

Freeman's set closed on a tile-melting rendition of Ornette Coleman's "Blue Bossa." Freeman, playing material that clearly suited his modern-yet-grounded sensibility, let his saxophone roar with joy. As one of Freeman's solos was drawing to a close, Jason Moran, topped with one of his signature fedoras, glided onto the stage and sat at the vacant piano. His accompaniment was uncharacteristically reserved, making him seem an admiring lyrical sideman rather than the percussive virtuoso that is Moran's most famous musical personality. The first set ended with the other members of Moran's New York-based group, the Bandwagon, coming on stage to join Freeman for one final romp.

The second set was the exclusive province of the Bandwagon, a group of mischievous jazz nonconformists who enjoy bending tradition as much as revering it. Moran has a tremendous presence at the piano, at times smashing the piano with reckless abandon. Moran has a sound as distinctive as any pianist working today. In a lesser group, he would be the unquestioned star, but Tarus Mateen, the bassist, and Nasheet Waits, the drummer, are such powerful players in their own right that the Bandwagon is a truly collaborative effort.

The Bandwagon played selections from its working repertoire of originals and standards; documented recently on its Blue Note album, The Bandwagon. On "Body and Soul," Moran was hauntingly lyrical, immersing himself in the standard's harmony while merely hinting at the melody. From this solemn disposition, the band, and Moran in particular, assumed a deeply grooved percussive abstraction on originals like "Another One" and "Gangsterism on Canvas."

On these originals especially, Waits shines. With steady employment from front men like Fred Hersch and Moran, it is clear that Waits is one of the most in-demand drummers working today; his playing proves that he's also one of the finest. He has developed a telepathic rapport with Moran and Mateen, detecting and dictating subtle shifts in tempo that keeps the audience in a state of suspended awe. He's a fundamentally sculptural drummer, crafting a rhythmic fullness that allows even Moran's most abstract solos to sound grounded.

The Bandwagon's earthy core is not solely the creation of Waits. Tarus Mateen, playing a Madrid-made acoustic electric bass, keeps the feverish virtuosos on either side of him in constant agreement. It's no easy task, as both Moran and Waits, despite their telepathic bond, have a tendency to run with their ideas to ever more elaborate terrain. Mateen is the trio's pulse, anchoring the group's energy and adding sparks of his own.

The most exciting and radical numbers of the night were two accompaniments to spoken-word tracks. In "Straight Outta Istanbul," Moran played the melody of a woman's voice cooing in Turkish. The woman was not singing, but Moran's piano brought out the music in her speech. The other overdubbed number placed Moran as the accompanist to the deep, soulful voice of a woman speaking of times gone by. This practice is well out of the norm in the jazz world, but Moran gets tremendous effect out of it. His adventurousness is expanding the spectrum of his music, and jazz music at large, into new sonic realms.