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Chris Searle on Jazz Chris Searle on Jazz: It's all groovy in Switzerland

Chico Freeman and Heiri Kaenzig
The Arrival
(Intakt CD 251)

IT’S A long way from Shytown and the jazz and blues-drenched shores of Lake Michigan to live in Biel, Switzerland. But it’s a journey that one of the great jazz saxophonists, Chico Freeman, has made.

It’s a blessing for European audiences certainly, and hearing Chico during the 2016 London Jazz Festival, it’s clear that he has lost none of his Chicago fire and free spirit.

Born in the Windy City in 1949, his father, Von, was himself a powerful tenorist with very much his own sound and two of his uncles were guitarists George and drummer Bruz, a family of masters.

Chico joined the Association for the Advancement of Jazz Musicians as a young man, and the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams became his tutor, sharing his love for free improvisation with the young prodigy.

In 1977 he moved to New York, playing with stellar musicans like Sun Ra, pianist Don Pullen, reedman Sam Rivers and his drumming compadre Jack DeJohnette.

He also cut a series of innovative albums for the India Navigation and Contemporary labels, including one for Elektra whose title epitomised his approach: Tradition in Transition.

His 2016 album, The Arrival, recorded in Winterthur, Switzerland, finds him in a duo context with the New York-born Swiss bassist Heiri Kaenzig, himself a veteran who has played with some of the prime Europe-based jazz musicians from Art Farmer and Kenny Wheeler to Charlie Mariano and Art Lande.

Kaenzig proclaims his love of melody in the album’s sleeve notes: “If you groove like hell and there’s no melody, it makes no sense.”

The opener is Kaenzig’s tune, remembering another Chicago saxophonist, Eddie Harris, who pioneered the electrified horn, One for Eddie Who 2.

The bass leaps and bounds while Freeman’s horn blows out patterns of notes in rapid clusters to create a keen-edged colloquy.

Kaenzig is also the writer of Early Snow. His love of melody is lucid in his solo preface, enhanced by Freeman in a contradictorily warm chorus. Here are different snows: American and Swiss, beheld and described in sound together, two continents of cold.

Freeman is the composer of the next three tracks. The Essence of Silence is anything but that. Freeman’s simple theme is grounded by Kaenzig’s repetitive rhythmic phrases as he blows with a tender strength.

Ancient Dancer mixes balm with movement as Chico’s horn leans on Kaenzig’s pulsating beat, and Will I See You in the Morning? is a slow ballad with more than a whisper of love. It cries out for words but it is the listener who must make the lyrics.

The sudden burst of familiarity comes with Bobby Timmons’s rousing tune which provoked storms at many a Jazz Messengers concert.

But now Timmons’s gospel-drenched piano and Art Blakey’s drums are far gone, and this version of Dat Dere is a different kind of palaver, between two masters — almost reflective, and when Freeman takes fire, Kaenzig’s hard-plucked notes answer him with now-times. Not the past.

After the snow, Song for the Sun is a serenely contrived improvisation with Kaenzig’s pinging bass strings urging Freeman’s own melodic invention as he reaches for the light.
It segues perfectly into Just Play, which is exactly what the twosome do for nearly four minutes racked with invention and shared creative grace.

Kaenzig’s Eye of the Fly is slow and ruminative, as if bass and saxophone were sonic microscopes. His solo delves deep but then it is Coltrane’s eternal tune, After the Rain.

Kaenzig takes his bow and saws a dramatic introduction before Chico blows the theme with gentle beauty. The melody’s subliminal sense of lamentation continues directly into Chico’s own To Hear a Teardrop in the Rain, a song of grieving for a lost love, played by the duo with a moving eloquence.

The album’s finale is Kaenzig’s tribute to the great bop bassman, Paul Chambers. Chambers’ Room has Chico’s jaunty tone jumping above Kaenzig’s sure-footed bassline as if all is very groovy for him in Europe, even though Chicago still breathes out through his every note.

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