At 90, jazz legend George Freeman preps his next album | Chicago Tribune
by Howard Reich - Chicago Tribune
Ninety-year-old Chicago jazz legend George Freeman settles into a comfortable chair, closes his eyes and says he's ready to listen.
So recording engineer Brian Schwab presses a button, and, suddenly, the voice of Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo resonates on the sound system in Schwab's Chicago recording studio.
"George is — when was your birthday, yesterday? — 88 years old," Jemilo is heard telling the Green Mill crowd, during a show recorded live two years ago.
"How about that?" continues Jemilo on the recording. "Is he the hippest guy you know?"
The audience roars, and then Freeman's voice booms forth.
"Hold it Dave," Freeman says on the recording. "Dave, I want you to know I'm still young at heart."
And the club bursts into a spontaneous chorus of "Happy Birthday."
"You gotta' leave that in there, because that's the Green Mill," Freeman calls out to engineer Schwab and guitarist Mike Allemana, both of whom nod approvingly.
Thus they begin their work, putting the final touches on an album to be released digitally and on vinyl Aug. 18: "Live at the Green Mill," featuring the George Freeman/Mike Allemana Organ Quartet with special guest Bernard Purdie.
That Freeman — elder brother of Chicago tenor saxophone giant Von Freeman, who died in 2012 — should be recording, performing and touring the world at his exalted age is a gift to anyone who values the glories of Chicago jazz and the enormous contributions of the Freeman family. The lineage includes Von and George's brother, drummer Eldridge "Bruz" Freeman, who died in 2006, and Von's son, tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman, who returned to the United States last year after more than a decade in Europe.
Guitarists George Freeman, left, and Mike Allemana listen during a mastering session for their upcoming album, “Live at the Green Mill.”
Like his saxophonist sibling, George Freeman owns a resume few living musicians can match, the guitarist having performed with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Richard "Groove" Holmes — well, you get the idea.
But Freeman's career was tapering down when Chicago drummer Mike Reed, who owns the Constellation arts center on North Western Avenue, in 2013 came up with the idea of teaming him with guitarist Allemana (who had played for years with Von Freeman).
"Mike called me and said: 'George, man, Mike Reed had been over in Italy … and the driver was playing (Freeman's) record in the car,'" remembers Freeman.
The driver said to Reed, "'You know who this is? George Freeman out of Chicago,'" adds Freeman.
"And Mike said, 'I know George Freeman.' And it progressed from there."
Indeed it did. Reed offered the Freeman/Allemana partnership an extended engagement at Constellation, and the first night "about three people" showed up, says Freeman.
"I started calling (Reed) a class act, because he paid us, regardless of empty or not, he paid the band.
"Am I lying?" Freeman says to Allemana, who nods his head to vouch for Freeman's veracity.
The partnership quickly drew a following, however, Jemilo initiating annual birthday shows at the Green Mill and Freeman finding himself increasingly in demand.
"When they find out you're 90 years old … it's totally different," says Freeman.
"They're surprised, me being 90 years old. I just got back from Key West, Fla. And the one who has the club there, he says (to the audience): 'And he's 90 years old!
"And the people said, 'Wow! … But you sure don't look it.'"
Freeman doesn't sound it either, his antics on the recording they're mastering on this morning suggesting the energy and free-spiritedness of a much younger man.
At some points the recording captures Freeman shouting his famous exhortation to the crowd: "Everybody say, 'Yeah!'" At other moments he's heard turning up the power on his instrument, maniacally ascending the chromatic scale as if reaching for the heavens.
But as Allemana and engineer Schwab listen to one musical snippet after another, Freeman gets a bit frustrated.
"I want to hear one song, at least, in its entirety," he protests. "I can't tell what's what. Let's hear something."
So Schwab plays the band's recording of Freeman's "Hoss."
"I'm just trying to make it right — right George?" says Allemana.
"I'm just trying to figure out what's going on," responds Freeman.
The guitarist savors the music as "Hoss" plays from start to finish, Freeman nodding to the beat.
Several hours later, when the day's work ends, Freeman seems pleased.
"I feel great," he says. "I feel great about the album. I like the sound of it. The engineer has a lot to do to bring that sound out," he says, the Green Mill sets having been recorded by David Zuchowski.
Adds Allemana, "My impression is I'm certainly happy that it's finally going to get released. I think the recording really captures the likeness of George's thing, and that's really hard to capture.
"I feel like the band is really speaking as one, we really are together on this, don't you George?" says Allemana, referencing an ensemble featuring organist Pete Benson and guest drummer Purdie, plus a vocal by Chicagoan Joanie Pallatto.
Freeman concurs, again tipping his hat to the engineers.
"You have a script," he says, "but it's the person that's believing the script that really enhances the script."
To which Allemana responds, "You provided the script."
Meaning all but one of the compositions on the album were penned by Freeman, including "Birth Sign," which happens to have been the title track of his first album as leader, recorded in 1969.
As for the new album, "It's very important to me," says Freeman. "It took four years for it to come here."
Judging by the mastering session, it was worth the wait.
George Freeman and the New Apartment Lounge Trio play at 8:30 p.m. June 21 at Fulton Street Collective, 1821 W. Hubbard St.; $10 suggested donation; www.fultonstreetcollective.com/events or 773-852-2481. The George Freeman/Mike Allemana Organ Quartet plays at 7, 8:30 and 10 p.m. July 8 at Winter's Jazz Club, 465 N. McClurg Court (on the promenade); $20; 312-344-1270 or www.wintersjazzclub.com.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.