George Freeman: The Good Life

The 96-year-old brother of Von Freeman picks slower with his kitchen-drawer knob plectrum but keeps up the bluesy heat with DeFrancesco et al

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I’ve read that nowadays George Freeman plays guitar with a kitchen-drawer knob. Otherwise, the thin plectrum keeps slipping away from his hands.

Strangely enough, it’s what you have come to expect from the veteran cult hero from Chicago. Brother of the famed, late saxophonist Von and drummer Bruz and uncle of reed and woodwind player Chico, George Freeman has reached the astounding age of 96. He goes way back to the 1940s and the early 1950s, when he played wildly unorthodox guitar with Charlie Parker (documented on Parker’s The Complete Live Performances On Savoy).

Freeman accompanied Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. True to his South Side roots, he mixed bebop and groove and continued to perform with Wild Bill Davis, Gene Ammons and Richard “Groove” Holmes during the ensuing decades, not to mention recording a slew of gritty avant-funk records as a leader.

The Good Life couples Freeman with two groups drawn from America’s finest: organist Joey DeFrancesco (his last recording before dying in 2022), bassist Christian McBride and drummers Lewis Nash and Carl Allen. Freeman concerns himself with blues, blues and then some, mostly medium and slow tempo, so that there’s no need to call upon velocity, which understandably is largely diminished.

Here and there, he tags his simple lines with a naughty “wrong” cluster of notes, notably during Mr. D, which I assumed was homage to Captain Walter Dyett, who taught countless future legends the basics at DuSable High School in Chicago, among them Nat King Cole, Milt Hinton, Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Eddie Harris, Richard Davis and The Freemans. However, the liner notes by Michael Cuscuna reveal that it is dedicated to DeFrancesco, whose burning solo is abundant proof of his prowess and unfaltering alliance to the Jimmy Smith tradition.

Freeman is a minimalist and highly rhythmic player who reminds of another cult hero, Bill Jennings. It’s a style that is played out best on the rhythmically astute backdrop of McBride and Allen. He ventures into the boogie of 1,2,3,4, which is like a spontaneous jam you might still occasionally run into in a juke joint in Itta Bena or Hazlehurst, Mississippi. He revives some of the off-key shenanigans of his career on the title track, which swells up midway as a fight between garbagemen struggling for territorial dominance during rush hour.

An admirable elderly jazz excursion and according to the cheerful Freeman, there is still more to come.


Discography
(1) If I Had You; Mr. D; Up And Down; (2) Lowe Groovin’; 1,2,3,4; Sister Tankersley; The Good Life (50.57)
Freeman (g) with:
(1) Joey DeFrancesco (org); Lewis Nash (d). Chicago, 2022.
(2) Christian McBride (b); Carl Allen (d). Place, date as (1).
HighNote Records 7352