Jazz saxophonist Von Freeman has played with everyone from Charlie Parker to Andrew Hill to Sun Ra. They're all gone now, but Freeman, who is now in his 80s, is still playing hard. For decades, he's performed every week with a band in Chicago, but he has never released an album with them until now. Freeman's latest is called "Vonski Speaks." Vonski is his nickname.

Peter Margasak has our review.

PETER MARGASAK: Von Freeman traveled light when he went to Berlin in 2002 for a performance at the city's prestigious jazz festival.

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MARGASAK: He arrived from his home in Chicago on the morning of the gig with only his horn, some toiletries and a change of underwear stuffed into his tenor saxophone case. He also took his regular working band.

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The Berlin concert was recorded, and that's what we get to hear on "Vonski Speaks." Since 1979, Freeman has hosted a weekly Tuesday night jam session at the colorful South Side Chicago bar called the New Apartment Lounge. Each week, he and his working band play a full set heavy on jazz standards and the occasional Freeman original. For the second set, a mix of eager aspirants and seasoned locals take turns sitting in.

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MARGASAK: For the Berlin concert, Freeman's group included drummer Michael Raynor, who's been playing that weekly New Apartment engagement since 1989; longtime guitarist Mike Allemana, who is still a member of the band; and bassist Jack Zara, who's not.

Before counting off the album's title track, Freeman checks with his drummer to make sure he's ready to handle its breakneck tempo.

Unidentified Man: Did you have your Wheaties? Good.

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MARGASAK: Von Freeman is now 87 years old and Chicago to his very core: a no-fuss, blue-collar musician who just happens to be one of the greatest living practitioners of hard bop, the hard-swinging successor to bebop that is the default lingua franca of most mainstream jazz today.

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MARGASAK: He studied under the iconic Captain Walter Dyett at DuSable High School, emerging from a program that produced a slew of brilliant saxophonists, including Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, John Gilmore and Clifford Jordan.

While those players all eventually settled in New York, where they achieved great notoriety, Freeman chose to remain in Chicago to raise his family, including his son, saxophonist Chico Freeman. Vonski's been a hardworking local fixture for half a century, influencing dozens of younger players.

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MARGASAK: Freeman has a distinctive tone: a brash, slightly sharp attack that's drawn criticism from certain listeners over the years. But the saxophonist has been fiercely deliberate in shaping that sound. His rangy, opening cadenza in "Darn That Dream" wobbles sumptuously, coursing with unfiltered emotion.

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MARGASAK: This raw, deeply soulful album represents Von Freeman in his natural environment. The performances aren't perfect, but they're undeniably real. He's the living embodiment of the brawny, blues-imbued Chicago tenor tradition.

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SIEGEL: Peter Margasak is a music critic for The Chicago Reader. He was reviewing the album "Vonski Speaks."


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