George Freeman swings into his 89th birthday at Green Mill
"Has anyone here ever been to someone's 89th birthday?" Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo asked the crowd Friday night, by way of introducing the evening's attraction.
"Hardly anyone makes it to that, and we've got George Freeman!"
A big roar went up with those words, for the beloved Chicago guitarist indeed was marking the grand occasion, though a bit early. Freeman's birthday falls on April 10, but he traditionally celebrates during the nearest weekend at the Green Mill, as he did last year.
As always, a nearly life-size cutout of Von Freeman — the guitarist's elder brother — looked on from a corner of the club above and behind the stage, reminding everyone of the family's eminence in jazz. George Freeman never enjoyed quite the international acclaim of his elder brother, Chicago tenor saxophone legend Von Freeman, who died in 2012 at age 88; nor did sibling Eldridge "Bruz" Freeman, an admired drummer who died in 2006.
But the guitarist nobly has upheld the family's musical legacy. In recent years, he has savored a welcome career resurgence, performing steadily alongside Chicago guitarist Mike Allemana, who long played with Von Freeman and has helped give George Freeman another chapter in a very long story.
Allemana was right there onstage with guitarist Freeman again, the musicians joined by guest drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie and Chicago organ master Pete Benson — the same band that ushered in Freeman's 88th birthday last year at the Mill.
Even before Freeman played a note, however, he characteristically reached out to the audience.
"Everybody say, 'Yeah!'" Freeman shouted with the gusto of a younger man.
After everyone yelled back, Freeman asked for more.
"Everybody say 'Hell, yeah!'" Freeman bellowed.
The vocal blast that followed brought a smile to Freeman's face.
"All right," he said, immediately launching into an up-tempo swinger that set the tone and tempo for the first set. For nearly everything that Freeman and friends played was big, rowdy and shot through with the spirit of the blues.
Granted, at the start Freeman played mostly long-held notes, his fingers presumably warming up as he went along. But what he initially lacked in velocity he made up for in drive, laying into relentless repeated notes, bending pitches without inhibition, leaning on dissonance to make sure he was heard.
He was, but his colleagues did not hold back. Allemana and Benson offered profusions of notes during their own solos, and Purdie provided relentless backbeats through it all. The sheer energy and rhythmic thrust of this music said a great deal about the nature of youth, which in some cases obviously defies the date on the calendar.
For all the exuberance of this performance, though, Freeman's most detailed playing emerged in an original ballad. The guitarist's control of pianissimo tone, meticulousness of chordal voicing and delicacy of melodic embellishment represented some of his best work of recent vintage. While Benson produced a soft underlay of swelling chords on Hammond B-3 organ, Freeman improvised one ornately conceived phrase after another, his ability to invent lines apparently undiminished by the passage of time.
As Freeman's notes became softer and softer, his solo eventually trailed off into the ether, the guitarist then whispering into the microphone, "That's all."
That was plenty.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
George Freeman plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or www.greenmilljazz.com.