To those who who knew Russ Freeman or his work it was a source of frustration that he elected during his final years not to play the piano. Freeman died in 2002 at the age of 76. He was part of the west coast jazz scene before it was called that. He worked in Los Angeles in the late forties and early fifties with Howard McGhee, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and other bop musicians. Then he got famous as the pianist in Chet Baker’s first quartet and attracted a following for his inventive work with Baker as accompanist, soloist and composer. Freeman wrote one of the classic jazz ballads, “The Wind,” in addition to “Maid in Mexico,” “Happy Little Sunbeam” “Fan Tan,” “Band Aid” and pieces titled for his love of baseball, among them “Batter Up,” “Safe at Home” and “Fungo.”. Freeman recorded one trio album of his own and made a stunning two-piano album with André Previn. He collaborated closely with drummer Shelly Manne in Manne’s quintet and two remarkable sets of piano-drum duets, one in 1954, another in 1982.
A concert that Freeman played in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1959 has emerged on a new CD. The ten tracks remind us of his stimulating blend of lyricism and percussiveness. The repertoire includes includes standards, with an intriguing “Lush Life,” a stirring “With a Song in My Heart” and a live version of “Fan Tan.” The bassist and drummer are not identiied. This is a substantial addition to the sparse discography of Freeman as leader and a reminder of the muscle and drive in his solo work.
Thanks to Wolfram Knauer of Jazzinstitut Darmstadt in Germany for calling my attention to an article in the Las Vegas Sun about Carolyn Freeman. Russ Freeman’s widow is at the center of a movement to create a jazz performance center in that Nevada city. In the course of the piece, she is quoted about her husband’s reluctance to perform.
Though he was a great musician, her husband never listened to music at home, she says.
“He focused so hard when he listened it wasn’t relaxing,” Freeman says. “He couldn’t tune it out. He’d hear the scores in movies. At a particularly dramatic moment he’d say, ‘Carolyn, listen to that string line,’ and it blows the whole movie.”
The Northridge earthquake in 1994, which killed 72 and injured thousands, drove the Freemans out of Los Angeles, and they ended up in Las Vegas. Both were retired by then.
“He didn’t play music anymore,” she says. “I asked him, ‘Why don’t you play? It’s your gift?’ And he said, ‘It’s very painful.’ Russ was a perfectionist. He said, ‘When the music is wonderful, it’s unbelievable, but most of the time it’s not.’ ”
To read all of the piece about Carolyn Freeman, go here.