The Homecoming of Chico Freeman

Aug 15, 2016

Saxophonist Chico Freeman has been on a 10-year journey of discovery. 

"I always wanted to try to live in another place, besides the United States.  I went from Chicago to New York, and I always had it in my mind that I wanted to base myself somewhere else in the world.  I wanted to edify myself about other cultures and how people express music relative to their cultures," he says. 

"At first I thought about France, because of the history France has with jazz, from Sidney Bechet to Eric Dolphy and a lot of musicians who went to France.  I thought about Northern Europe, Copenhagen, places like that, because of Dexter Gordon spending so much time there.  I also wanted to try Japan and Australia."

Chico ended up in Greece, then the Balkans.  "I met a lot of Gypsy people, and I found that really interesting, because I found a similarity to the blues musicians in America, in the ways they live and their relationship to society.  Flamenco music in Spain was originally Gypsy music.  It's their blues form."

He's had the opportunity to spend time in Africa, too.  Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Congo, South Africa, Morocco, and Algeria all offered him a chance to explore the many cultures and musical forms of the continent.

Not that he's lacking in music and culture from his home country.  Chico is part of Chicago's musical Freeman family.  His father, beloved saxophonist Von Freeman was a mainstay of that city's music scene, and Von's brothers George (guitar) and Bruz (drums) lived and worked with him.  Young Chico and the neighborhood kids would check out their rehearsals, and also got to hear Andrew Hill, Ahmad Jamal, Malachi Favors and other Chicago-based jazz greats when they came to work with Von.

Von was one of the founders of the "Chicago School" of tenor sax, along with Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan.  Chico worked as a bartender so he could hear their jam sessions and see other musicians from New York and around the world as they came through.  It was quite an education for the aspiring young saxophonist.

"Chicago is the home of the urban blues.  If you're a musician from Chicago, you've got to know how to play the blues."  Chico gigged with B.B. King and Buddy Guy.

He also worked with drummer Elvin Jones in the late 1970s.  "Elvin was a good friend and a great mentor.  Since John Coltrane was a big influence on me, working with Elvin was a dream for me."

Chico left Chicago for the many musical opportunities in New York, which included spending  a good deal of his time with the Latin jazz masters like Machito, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri.  He formed his own Latin band, Guataca.  He's been to Cuba and worked with the Duke Ellington of that country,  Chucho Valdez. 

Chico's got about 40 recordings under his own name, and a worldwide reputation as an innovator. 

Having been so many places and having worked with so many great musicians, Chico has come to believe that "... playing this music is a privilege.  It takes hard work, dedication and commitment.  But it pays off.  And it's probably one of the noblest professions you can go into, especially if you enter it with purity of heart.  By that I mean, I believe it's only music, by its nature, that gives the practitioner the opportunity to express himself, or herself, in non-conditional terms.  That's something I believe people look for, and need. 

"Dizzy Gillespie said that jazz was the search for truth.  That's exactly what it is.  It's the search for the truth of who you are at that moment.  It's a pure truth.  That's as much truth as anybody has.  This music gives you the opportunity to do that.  And when you do that, you connect with your audience.  If the people who are there are able to share that with you, that's possibly the most honest, truest connection you can have with any other person."

The Chico Freeman 4-tet CD, "Spoken Into Existence" is a beautiful recording that released in May, and the band has been touring the U.S.  They'll be at the Triple Door in Seattle tomorrow, Tuesday August 16, and I'll be hosting a live Studio Session with them that afternoon at 2 p.m. on KPLU's Midday Jazz.