Remembering Von

If not for the Chicago Clean Indoor Air Ordinance, the Jazz Showcase would have been dark and smoky. Even so, it was dim enough inside for a memorial service– more specifically, a memorial show honoring the late, great jazz saxophonist Von Freeman. Fortunately, at Wednesday’s Von Freeman Tribute, the atmosphere of mourning did not stifle anyone’s artistry. As staccato keys complemented improvised drumming and tearful vocals tangled with tweeting trumpets, the spirited, disorganized event went down as a proper jazz funeral.

With musicians running late, the evening’s quintet began as a trio. Though this could have been more problematic, the crowd, content to lounge on velvet chaises and sip whatever drink the wandering waitress might have been serving, hardly seemed put off by the delay. In fact, the disarrayed arrivals of drummer Robert Shy, singer Joanie Pallatto, pianist Willie Pickens, trumpeter Brad Goode, bassist Larry Kohut, and saxophonist Eric Schneider mirrored the looseness of their jams.

Together these five honored the memory of a mentor, a Chicago jazz revolutionary, and — as the personal anecdotes following each song made clear — a dear friend.

One of these stories, told by singer Joanie Pallatto, spoke of “Vonski” recording on a broken piano because he didn’t want to spend the money to replace it. Von knew he could “count on [the singer’s] voice to match whatever jangle he played anyway.”

Freeman’s freewheeling passion was made more evident as the musicians fused individual eccentricities into a meaningful group performance. On his or her own, each musician could have given a technically brilliant performance, and each is individually accomplished– for example, many would recognize saxophonist Eric Schneider’s quintet from this year’s Hyde Park Jazz Festival. However, a show focused solely on personal talents might not have honored Freeman’s emphasis on collective experimentation. It was in the fleeting, melding melodies, off-rhythm solos, and eclipsed individual distinctions that this jazz show thrived. As the players spontaneously re-interpreted Peggy Lee’s “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “The Improviser,” it was hard to mistake their rambles for the pursuit of perfection. At the same time, Von Freeman’s friends deserve credit for daring to make camaraderie their main pursuit.

And how rarely is camaraderie unflawed! Drummer Shy cut off saxophonist Schneider to go into his own five minute solo, Schneider himself came to the stage thirty minutes late, trumpeter Goode used a water bottle to mute his horn, and at one point during the night, Pallatto kicked everyone off stage to let her husband play the piano. Yet out of these technical bumps came a community-based tribute more true to the Von Freeman’s neon-lit spirit than any austere, faux-classical performance. The musicians’ unique paths to the stage (one a 16-hour trek from Denver) ended in the knowledge that perfection isn’t always perfect.