Chico Freeman - In His Own Words
Cover Photo by Lois Gilbert
In 1982, Chicago saxophonist Chico Freeman was a key member of the legendary “Young Lions” concert at Lincoln Center that included other stars-to-be Wynton Marsalis, Kevin Eubanks, Paquito D’Rivera, and Bobby McFerrin, among others. Today Freeman merits being called a “master on his instrument,” and has perfected an immediately recognizable approach to music and composition, blending what he has experienced from his past and providing fluidity into a future of infinite musical possibilities.
Freeman amassed a diverse resume, performing R&B, blues, hard bop and avant garde. His collegiate studies in Advanced Composition and Theory at Northwestern University led him to teach composition at the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) Music School, and while attaining his Masters in Composition and Theory at Governor State University, he studied composition with NEA Jazz Master Muhal Richard Abrams. Through apprenticeships in New York and abroad with such innovators as Elvin Jones, Don Pullen, Sam Rivers, Sun Ra, and Jack DeJohnette, Freeman developed his own group and rapidly rose to prominence with his energetic and exploratory style.
Although jazz was the first music Freeman was exposed to, many of his early professional gigs were at Chicago clubs with such blues artists as Memphis Slim, and Lucky Carmichael, and Freeman’s broad list of credits includes many high-profile jazz, pop, Latin and R&B artists: Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Charles Mingus, Jack DeJohnette, Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Hank Jones, Freddie Cole, Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Roy Haynes, Von Freeman, Arthur Blythe, Billy Hart, Lester Bowie, Famadou Don Moye, Cecil McBee, Kirk Lightsey, John Hicks, Mal Waldron, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Eurythmics, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Sting, Chucho Valdes, Tito Puente, Machito, Irakere, Arturo Sandoval, Celia Cruz, Giovanni Hidalgo, Paulinho DaCosta, Nana Vasconcelos, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Puerto Rico’s famous El Gran Combo.
Chico is a member of the Freeman family, Chicago’s First Family of jazz. His father is the legendary saxophonist Von, and his uncles include guitarist George and drummer Bruz. Although Freeman has adopted the instrument of his father, it was not his first instrument, as he reveals in this exclusive CJM interview.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Talk a little about what it was like growing up with your father, Von Freeman, and what the jazz scene was like back then.
Chico Freeman: When I was young we had lots of kids on my block. We had one family with fifteen kids, which was great because you hardly had to leave the block to play. During summer, my dad would have rehearsals. He had the piano in the living room, so when on the front porch you could sit and actually look inside the house through the window and see the piano. I remember seeing people like Leroy Vinnegar, Malachi Favors and Andrew Hill. Other Chicago musicians would come and play with the Freeman Brothers band. The band included my uncle George on guitar and my uncle Bruz on drums. They’d set up in the living room and have a rehearsal. We’d have all the windows open because we didn’t have air conditioning and they would start playing. Within minutes, the front porch was filled with kids; we’d have a big party outside with all my friends. The funny thing is, Richard Davis, the bass player, lived across the street from us, and down the street was Frank Leslie, whose auntie was Abbey Lincoln from Chicago. There was always somebody famous hanging around the house. I was just used to musicians coming over. It was really fun. They were just people that I knew as a kid, with my brother and two sisters at the time. That’s what my dad did. My mom took me to the Regal Theater when I was five––it was kind of like the Apollo of Chicago. She took me to see my dad play with Miles Davis, and that was the band with Coltrane, “Cannonball” and Paul Chambers. I remember him standing next to Miles and Coltrane, playing. I’ll never forget that; I can see it clear as day. Ironically, John Coltrane died on my birthday, so there’s kind of a connection there that’s really unique.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you decide you were interested in playing jazz and picking up the saxophone?
Freeman: Having all this music around me did create a desire to be in the industry, but at first I wanted to do it as a singer. In grammar school, I was always in the talent shows and school plays and concerts, and I sang in the choir. I started taking piano lessons when I was five. One time, my brother and I went searching in the basement through my dad’s old Navy stuff that he’d packed away. We found a trumpet and a saxophone. My brother took the saxophone and I took the trumpet. When my dad told the story he would say the sounds we made were “bleep” and “blat” because we were trying to play something. Anyway, he came down and saw the mess we made. Because of that, I ended up joining the school band on trumpet. At the same time I was singing in groups, trying to sound like the Drifters and Motown, things like that. The Temptations were my all-time favorite group, so I kept joining singing groups all through grammar and high school. Then I went to one of my friend’s, Soji Adebayo (Anthony Porter’s) house––his father had an incredible wall-to-wall jazz collection in his living room. The funny thing was, this introduced me to the music of Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and guys like that. Later on I was introduced to Coltrane’s music, even though I already knew of Coltrane when I saw my dad playing with him. But it was Soji and his father who really pulled me to the records, because my dad didn’t have a lot of records––he was practicing all of the time and not really listening to music. When you’re growing up listening and learning to play and really getting into it, you do a lot of listening. But once you start playing and the artist in you kicks in, you do less listening because you’re trying to be original and don’t want to be too overly influenced. I think that’s where my dad was at that point. I’m sure he kept up with what things people were doing, but he was about being an original, so he didn’t buy a lot of records. I didn’t grow up in my house listening to them. The audience has the time to sit back and listen to those kinds of recordings. Artists have to shape their craft and forge their voice.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re known for practicing all the time. When you’re not practicing or playing gigs you kind of want to listen to something other than music because it isn’t relaxing. You’re always analyzing it.
Freeman: After I’m done practicing I want to sleep! [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You attended Northwestern University on a scholarship that surprises most people.
Freeman: I received a scholarship to Northwestern in mathematics because I was good at math. That’s how I got into Northwestern. My life took a big change when I got there. I joined the marching band. They wanted you to have some kind of athletic endeavor and, surprisingly, the marching band was considered athletic, so I joined. The other interesting thing was I played basketball. In the marching band I played trumpet, and because it was a Big Ten school and I got to do a lot of traveling. We’d march during halftime at football games, so that was fun! Then I decided I was going to go into computer programing as well. They gave you two directions you could go in mathematics: the more practical direction as an engineer or a similar career, or a more theoretical route. I got excited over the theoretical things because that was stuff that ultimately shaped the future of space travel and other things. Mathematics is far ahead of science. Science discovers areas that will become future uses for mathematics, but science is still behind math. I was actually recruited by the space program. They wanted me to come down and join them at Cape Canaveral and work when I graduated. Because I was in programing, IBM tried to recruit me as well, and another company at that time, Data Control. Three companies were romancing me.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You had some significant options.
Freeman: It’s interesting, because that’s the time I met Fred Anderson. Adegoke Steve Colson, Neil Tesser and I were in school together at Northwestern. Adegoke and I met Fred, and he sort of took us under his wing there in Evanston. He started a chapter of the AACM up there, and that’s how I met Billy Brimfield, Hamid Drake and Gene Anderson, Fred’s son. We used to hang at Fred’s and he’d play Charlie Parker records. Sometimes we would spend the night and sleep on the floor after listening to music, playing and practicing on the weekends or whenever. The three of us started a band, Life and Death Situation, and we had a drummer named Anthony (Tony) Boykins. Adegoke was on piano and I was playing trumpet, but I also began playing saxophone at that time. I was starting to take trips to the South Side to hang with my dad at the jam sessions. I’d just go down there and listen to Clifford Jordan, Sonny Rollins and John Stubblefield. They would come into the Jazz Showcase, and if they had time they’d hang out with my dad at the jam sessions.
Chico and Von Freeman at the Nîmes Métropole Jazz Festival in Paris in the 1980s.
I met a lot of people down there and would hang out at the sessions with Jesse Taylor and Jordan, you know, Chicago guys who were in town. That’s when I started really getting into it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you decided not to go with IBM or NASA?
Freeman: The music bug bit me. And with Fred’s encouragement, I decided to go into the music school. I joined the band on trumpet—a concert band, not the marching band. I wanted to transfer into the School of Music at Northwestern, but I did keep a minor in mathematics. In music education, you had to learn something about each instrument so you could teach it. I was in the woodwind class. I picked the alto saxophone because it was available. One-quarter of the class was playing the alto just to learn about it, and I really liked it. I had to give the horn back at the end of the class, and when I was putting it back in the closet I saw a tenor saxophone in there. It was spring break, so I asked the teacher if I could take the tenor home for the next two weeks and play it. Everyone else in the class was going to Florida, but I decided to stay in Evanston and practice ten to twelve hours every day. The tenor sax just seemed like it was my voice. One of the reasons was because I was studying with this great classical trumpet player. Then I got excited when I discovered Miles’ Kind of Blue album. I thought it was great and remember taking the record to the classical trumpet player. I thought he’d be thrilled about it, but he was a harsh critic of Miles and said, “Oh, he doesn’t play in tune; he’s cracking a lot of notes.” You know, for him, Miles wasn’t “great”—I was crushed. [laughs] I did like this guy, but I couldn’t get Miles out of my head as far as the trumpet. His sound and his choice of notes just got to me. It was going to be very hard for me to be original, because there were no other trumpet players I found on a high enough level for me. So, instead, for two weeks I practiced tenor sax. That was it for me––I realized I should’ve been playing the saxophone years earlier. After the two weeks I went to the concert band director and said, “I’d like to join the concert band.” His name was Tex Suthers—he was from Texas or something—and looked at me like I was crazy. He said, “You’re already in the band.” I said, “Yeah, but I want to join the band on saxophone.” He looked at me again and said, “How long have you been playing saxophone?” I said, “Two weeks.” He got really angry! He said, “Are you crazy? This is Northwestern University—these people have been playing for years and you think you can come here in two weeks…?!” And blah, blah, blah. Oh, he just really went off on me. I wasn’t sure if he was angry or maybe he had a little racism in him, but he wasn’t happy. I told him, “You’re right, but the truth is you have to give me an audition. You can say no, but you can’t deny me the audition.” He agreed and I auditioned. And, to his surprise, I passed the audition. He was shocked, and I joined the band on tenor saxophone. Of course, now I’m in the school and my instrument is saxophone, so I have to join a saxophone quartet. I studied with a teacher named Fred Hemke—great guy. Rico even named a reed after him: the Hemke Reed for soprano. So I began playing classical music on tenor and then one day I went down to see my dad. [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did Von know you were playing saxophone at that point?
Freeman: Not really. I can’t remember if I called him and told him, or if he found out when I went to Betty Lou’s to sit in with him. I remember I took my girlfriend at the time and I think Clifford Jordan was there with Jessie Taylor. I brought the horn with me and told them I wanted to sit in. I had learned some stuff, at least. Of course everyone was looking at me because I’m Von’s son. When I finally got up on the bandstand my sound was terrible! I was playing on a classical mouthpiece, which was fine in the saxophone quartet at college, but now I’m down there playing and Clifford is standing next to me. Clifford had this big Chicago sound and I sounded like someone tearing a piece of paper. [laughs] I think my dad was embarrassed and went, “Oh my God.” After the session I was about to leave and head back up to Northwestern, and my dad goes, “Wait a minute. You gotta come with me.” He took me upstairs to his room and pulled out a drawer that was full of mouthpieces. He went rummaging through them and came up with one. He says, “Here, try this.” I put it on the sax and I was like, Wow! It was night and day. He said, “You take that. It’s yours now. I was working on it for me, but you need it more than I do.” [laughs] So I went to my saxophone quartet rehearsal the next day with my new mouthpiece. I was all excited about it, but as soon as Mr. Hemke counted off the piece we were playing, I started playing a booming, boo, boo ba dee boo! He said, “Oh Lord!” He put his hands to his head and yelled, “What’s going on!?” [laughs] I said, “I got a new mouthpiece! Isn’t it great?” [laughs] He says, “No it’s not! This is classical! Do you still have the other mouthpiece?” I did and I ended up having to switch back over. When I went to practice on the weekends I put my dad’s mouthpiece on the sax. When I was in the saxophone quartet I used the other one. The next time I went back home to sit in with my dad he was so proud of me. I graduated from Northwestern with a major in music and a minor in math. I did take the knowledge from math and used it in my compositions. The compositions came later as I met Muhal Richard Abrams. I did my first professional job with a guy named “Duck”––Hamid Drake was in the band. That was my very first professional job that paid. It was an R&B band. After I graduated, Fred told Adegoke and me about Muhal, so we went down to join the AACM. I started attending the AACM School of Music and studying composition and music with Muhal. I became a part of his big band and met George Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Amina Claudine Meyers, Gerald Donovan, Donald Myrick, Louis Satterfield and Michael Harris, who ultimately became the horn section for Earth, Wind & Fire. I got involved playing blues, fusion with Kestutis Stanciauskas, who led the band Street Dancer. I was playing everything I could. I met Buddy Guy and played with Jesus Wayne, and we opened for Earth, Wind & and Fire. I was having a great time. I was also finishing up my degree at Northwestern in music education and had to choose where to do my student teaching. Willie Pickens was teaching at Phillips High School, so I went down there and became his student. I watched my dad play with Willie and his friends, Jodie Christian and John Young.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you decide to run your own groups?
Freeman: Muhal encouraged it. I studied composition with Muhal; I also took Composition at Northwestern. I had Music Theory with this guy Carlin––Neil Tesser was in that class. I always had an interest in writing my own music, even when I was studying piano. I made some attempts––I wrote one song for this girl I had a crush on. I was a romantic! [laughs]. Muhal had a strong influence on me. I studied with him at AACM and I’d also go to his house where he had a piano in the basement. That’s when he introduced me to the music of historical people like James P. Johnson and others. I didn’t know anything about those guys. They were very influential to Muhal, so it was amazing for me to hear them. He did a lot of what Fred did for me—taking me back to Charlie Parker. But Muhal took me back and showed me compositions and how they wrote them. He had his own system of writing, which I adopted. I had music that I wanted to play so I would start my own band. The best way to get your music played was to create your own group and circumstances. It’s always been my way, even when I got to New York.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you end up in New York?
Freeman: I had a little bit of preparation. After I graduated school I went to a concert/club in Evanston, Illinois where Charles Mingus was playing. I
Freeman at 38 with his family (standing, left to right): Von, Mark and Chico; (sitting): Brenda, Denise and Ruby Freeman
remember seeing Charles and he had Don Pullen in his band, Danny Richmond on drums, Jack Walrath on trumpet and George Adams on saxophone. Mingus was one of the first people my friend had introduced me to so I went there and just wanted to play with Mingus. I went up to Charles and said, “Mr. Mingus, could I please sit in with you?” He said, “Yes, it’s okay with me, but you have to ask George.” I thought, You know. He’s respectful, I was impressed. I went up to George Adams and said, “Mr. Adams, sir. Could I please sit in with you? Mr. Mingus said it’s okay if it’s alright with you.” George said, “Yeah, sure, come on.” I get in there and I’m hoping that Mingus is going to play the blues or something. He pulls out one of his compositions, which seems like it spans five music stands. [laughs] Afterwards, I was happy and thanked George and went to talk to Mingus. He was sitting in his chair and I said, “Thank you, Mr. Mingus. I really appreciate it,” I started to walk away and he said, “Hey. You should come to New York. We play Boomers every Saturday. When you get there, look me up.” That gave me a little bit of courage for the future.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What year was that?
Freeman: It was in the mid- to late ‘70s. I was working on my master’s degree and was going to Governors State University. My professor was Warrick Carter, who later became the Dean of Columbia College in Chicago. Before that he had gone to head the music program at Berklee College in Boston. When I went to Governors State University and was studying for my masters degree, Warrick was our instructor had the band really killin’. The band also had Billy Howell on trombone. Great musicians—really experienced ones. There was a competition at Notre Dame called the Intercollegiate Jazz Institute competition, like what the Monk Institute does today. Every college that had a jazz program from North Texas State to California would come to Notre Dame and compete. You competed for band and solo competitions, and on every instrument including voice, and also in composition. The band at Governors State took five of the eight awards––I took two of those five. I won Best Saxophonist and Best Soloist. Vandy Harris was amazing and won Best Composer, our vocalist won Best Vocals and we won Best Band. As winners, we were able to take part in a special exchange program and were chosen to go to Sao Paulo, Brazil. We had to fly to New York first, and Henry Threadgill and Fred Anderson had made a conscious effort to move to New York earlier that year. I was down in Sao Paulo for three weeks. After I got back to New York, I called Fred from the airport and asked him if I could stay with him for a few days. I told him, “I wanted to see New York since I have the opportunity.” I changed my ticket and went to Fred’s house. He was living in a loft above a place called the Tin Palace, on Third Avenue down on the Lower East Side. He lived with David Murray, Phillip Wilson and Stanley Crouch. I was going to stay there for three days and then go back to Chicago. Henry was working downstairs at the club with Jeanne Lee and they played that night. The Tin Palace liked it so much they wanted them to come back the next week. But Henry had to go to Chicago for personal business. He then asked me if I could take his place and sub for him. I told him I would, but that meant I had to postpone my leaving New York in three days. So I played with Jeanne Lee for the weekend while Henry was in Chicago. The club really liked Jeanne and invited her to come back the next weekend as well, so she asked me if I was available. So now my three days turned into a week, and the week turned into another. In the meantime, I met Olu Dara. He was playing with Mickey Bass at Dr. Generosity’s and asked me to come and sit in. I went up to see them and hang out. Michael Carvin was on drums and Kiane Zawadi was on euphonium. I sat in with Mickey Bass just for fun, and then Mickey liked it, so he hired me to stay. That band was working every week for a month. Now, my three days had turned into a month. I felt like I couldn’t stay with Fred anymore and told him I needed to find my own place. I stayed a few nights on a park bench. [laughs] John Stubblefield was playing with Cecil McBee and he got a call to play with Nat Adderley, so he asked me to take his place and play with Cecil. That’s how I ended up staying in New York—I never went back.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: As the song says, “One thing leads to another.”
Freeman: Let’s say I had great success in New York. I played with Sun Ra, then joined Elvin Jones and recorded with him. I also played with Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition for five years. I played with McCoy Tyner as well for 5 years. Elvin gave me my first record. I then met Bob Cummings with India Navigation, and then hooked up with Don Pullen again and became part of Don Pullen’s band, Warriors. I later started the band The Leaders, and Don Pullen was the first piano player of that band, along with Don Cherry on trumpet, Arthur Blythe on alto saxophone, Cecil McBee on bass and Famadou Don Moye on drums. I got a chance to work with all my heroes, of the John Coltrane Quartet including Reggie Workman. The only person I didn’t get to work with was Jimmy Garrison because he had already passed away.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Back then guys were on the scene, hanging out, so it was probably easier for you to run into them and play or sit in with an Elvin Jones or a Jimmy Garrison and get to know them. It’s different these days, isn’t it?
Freeman at age 35 with his father, Von.
Freeman: Agreed. I met a lot of people. I went out, and wasn’t shy about letting them know I played and would like to play with them. So then of course my reputation began to improve and I started getting calls.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was there any particular musician who made you think completely differently about your music?
Freeman: Honestly, I can’t just pick one––everyone had a profound effect on me. Elvin was a great influence, and to this day he’s my favorite all-time drummer. The way he plays behind the beat is so relaxed. He never rehearsed, so it was a completely different thing. In Chicago, the guys were always rehearsing. When I got to Elvin I was thinking, Man, we should be rehearsing. I even tried to influence Elvin and asked him when we were going to have rehearsal. He just looked at me and I thought I was going to get fired. [laughs] Elvin taught me a lot and shocked me and changed my viewpoint about things, and so did McCoy. There was an album of McCoy’s, Time for Tyner, which I loved. Freddie Waits was the drummer and I’ll never forget this because of the connection. Freddie was the drummer and McCoy had a song on there, “African Village,” which I loved! There was something he did harmonically I did not understand at the time. I wasn’t harmonically sophisticated then and never really studied the song; I tried to figure a little bit of it out, but didn’t. Then years went by and I ended up playing with McCoy. I did a couple records with him and later toured with the McCoy Tyner Trio and was the featured saxophonist. At that point I had established myself so it was billed as “McCoy Tyner Trio featuring Chico Freeman,” or something like that. It was very cool. I’m in complete deference to McCoy. When we were on tour I had a flashback to the song “African Village,” and I was like, Wow! I’m in a band with McCoy. I can ask him what he was doing! We were at some concert and I decided to ask him: “On Time for Tyner, your album, your song ‘African Village’—I love that song. What are the chords that you use?” He just looked at me and didn’t say anything. I hadn’t expected him not to answer; it was a little unnerving. He looked back down at the piano, and I was like, Oh shit, I guess I need to just put my head down. [laughs] Now it’s one year later and we’re at Blue Note in Tokyo, and I’m up there getting my mic together and I hear, “Hey Chico!” and I say, “Yeah McCoy?” He calls me over to the piano and goes, “Here, check this out.” He starts playing “African Village,” and I’m trying to catch it because he’s playing fast. I’m watching him and I go, “McCoy—that’s great! What is that chord? What do you call that?” He says, “It’s just a sound.” That’s it. That was the end of that. I walked away from that and thought, He’s not blowing me off, because I can tell the difference. He just told me something very important. Now, I went back to “African Village” and I saw what he did. Now I’m harmonically sophisticated. I listened to it and figured it out. There was no way to really identify it as a particular chord, you know, not really. That changed everything. I wrote a song, “Enchance,” on one of my recordings for him. One chord in this song—I’m not going to say what it is—is a polychord and is meant to be played exactly the way I wrote it. Every time I’ve played it piano players, they look at that chord and see it as something else. If you were to put A flat over B flat, everybody knows that’s a sus chord. They see it as this other thing. I get to this thing and I’m playing and the piano player does their thing, and I go, “No, no, no! Stop the band!” He starts telling me that this chord is this other thing. And I say, “No it’s not. You’ve got to play that chord exactly what it is. It’s three notes on top, and that’s it. Don’t alter it in any way. You can do whatever you want with everything else, but when you hit this chord, this is it.” And he goes, “Why?” I say, “It’s just a sound, man.” That chord that I wrote really was about just a sound. It was a sound that I wanted. That sound was completely different and in that thing it just changes everything.
Chico with his parents Von and Ruby
Chicago Jazz Magazine: In music education, you’d have fourteen people trying to psychoanalyze that chord in a class somewhere. But when you break it all down, music is just sound, right?
Freeman: Yeah. And I realized in many of my compositions, sometimes it’s really just that. I look for a sound. Sometimes it’s very difficult to try to name that sound. McCoy—answering the question—he’s one of those people. He and Elvin are two of those. Elvin for rhythmic things.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re coming to the Jazz Showcase, May 25-28. Is it the Chico Freeman Quartet?
Freeman: No, it’s the Chico Freeman Plus+tet. I’ve got a great band coming in with me. I’ve got Kenny Davis on bass and Anthony Wonsey on piano, both who are from Chicago and both who were mentored by my father Von Freeman, and Rudy Royston is on drums.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are you focusing on your new album, Spoken Into Existence?
Freeman: A lot from Spoken Into Existence, because Chicago hasn’t heard any of this music—at least me playing it live.
I’m playing other things too, from some previous recordings like “Enchance,” the one I wrote for McCoy. My uncle George’s ninetieth birthday is this month. I won’t be there for that, but George is going to join me on Sunday, so I’m going to do something a little special and tip my hat to my dad. I’ll try to do some more things that Chicago would love. The audience in Chicago is like no other––quite vocal. They aren’t always quiet. Compared to New York and other places, Chicago is a little rowdy, in a good way. I’ll never forget, Clifford Jordan and I were hanging out somewhere in New York and he says, “Ugh, all these people—say something! When they hear something good they should let you know just like they do in Chicago.” [laughs] You have to earn it. I hope I’ll be able to.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What prompted you to move to Europe?
Freeman: I left the States and went to Europe because I wanted to travel the world. I had toured Japan, Australia, the Far East and Near East, but had never really lived anywhere else. I wanted to see what it was like to live in a place and see how people are when they don’t know you—when you are a part of the landscape. Sometimes we get special treatment, which is nice and I enjoy it, but I wanted to see what it was like if they don’t know you. I also wanted to experience other kinds of music. I went to Spain and played with gypsy musicians and had the opportunity to play with Paco de Lucia, the great Spanish guitarist. I got to play with Andrea Bocelli and went to North Africa, Morocco and Algeria. In Morocco, I played with Ghanaian musicians and also participated in a festival where everybody played with everybody. I played in Hungary with this great Hungarian gypsy musician, Miklos Lukacs, who played this instrument I had never heard of, the cimbalom, which is incredible. I went to the Baltic countries and heard some of the clarinet players and their folk music. I went to Australia and met some aboriginal musicians.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about Spoken Into Existence.
Freeman: I have five daughters, so I wrote five songs, one for each one of my daughters. That’s Spoken Into Existence––that was the inspiration. Five are for my daughters and the other songs are some I’ve always wanted to play. A couple are from two of the guys on the recording: Antonio Faraò and Heiri Känzig. Two songs are by other people: Stanley Turrentine and Victor Feldman with “Soft Pedal Blues” and “Seven Steps to Heaven.” I’ve always liked “Seven Steps to Heaven.” Its arrangement is really hip. But “Soft Pedal Blues”—me being from Chicago—when I heard the recording of Stanley Turrentine’s song, I wanted to record it myself. One of my favorite saxophone players is Gene Ammons. Boy, he can play a slow blues. Everybody could play slow blues in Chicago back then, and so could I, but I had never recorded a slow blues. I thought, Wow. I can’t believe I never did that. I didn’t realize this at first. So, all the other things were kind of personal things I wanted to do and say with Spoken Into Existence. That’s kind of the significance of the title.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’ve now moved back to New York after being away for twelve years. How has the scene changed since you left?
Freeman: I lived in Europe approximately twelve years––went to Greece then moved to Switzerland. Even though I am back in the States and living in New York, I still have my place in Switzerland, but my main focus is being in New York. I moved back because I wanted to bring all of the playing and traveling experiences I’ve had over the years back to the States with me and get back to my roots and incorporate it all together into my playing again. I also miss playing with American musicians. I really wanted to play again with American drummers, bass players, rhythm sections and wanted to reconnect with the blues and some of the other cultural staples music here has given to the world. I felt it was time to come back to my roots again. Since I’ve been back, the changes I’ve noticed in the music scene are good, particularly with the musicians themselves. I’ve noticed there are more females in music that can really play. I’ve also noticed musicians are more inclusive in general—black and white players are playing together much more than they did before I left.
Chico Freeman photo by Roger Thomas
I also see so many gifted young players. We’ve lost a lot of great musicians and I just find it unfortunate because some of the young musicians won’t have the opportunity to apprentice from the bandstand like I was able to do with Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey and others. I hope I can supply some part of that by being back home.