Just moments after Wynton Marsalis took the stage of Orchestra Hall on Tuesday night he addressed a subject on many people's minds: Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, who died earlier this month at age 88.
"He was a legend," Marsalis told a crowded house, while a memorial service for Freeman was being held across town, at Christ Universal Temple, on South Ashland Avenue.
"Von inspired so many musicians. If you're a jazz musician, you don't think of coming to this city without thinking of Von, trying to catch him, hear him."
In every jazz city, Marsalis added, certain musicians command special reverence, setting exalted standards for everyone else – local artists and visiting stars alike.
"They know thousands of tunes," said Marsalis, in dedicating his performance to Freeman. "So that's what we're going to play – tunes."
For the next couple of hours, Marsalis led his quintet through some of the most beloved standards in the American canon, a fitting tribute to the immortal "Vonski," as everyone called him.
Through the years, Marsalis has visited here regularly leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, so opportunities to hear him in small-group contexts have been rare. This performance, then, served to remind listeners of how formidable a soloist Marsalis can be when given more time and space to play, and how much he savors the interplay among a few well-chosen musicians.
Though Marsalis' septet of the 1990s (which he revives periodically) remains his most celebrated ensemble outside the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the quintet setting offers a very different dynamic than either one. If the big band emphasizes corporate virtuosity and the septet a radiant blending of horns, the quintet trains a spotlight on Marsalis and reedist Walter Blanding (with significant contributions from pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson).
"Sweet Georgia Brown" may have been dismissed as treacle long ago by many jazz devotees, but Marsalis refuses to give up on the piece, in fact launching his Freeman tribute with it. But Marsalis' approach proved so light and lithe, so melodically buoyant and delicate in tone, that indeed the old warhorse was lifted from the realm of cliché. If the Harmon mute on Marsalis' horn gave the music-making a silvery elegance, the man's rigorous re-working of the song showed that practically any standard tune can yield tremendous flights of improvisation.
This was a lesson that saxophonist Freeman delivered for years every Tuesday night, leading jam sessions at the New Apartment Lounge on the South Side, and Marsalis in effect restated it.
Few contemporary trumpeters use the plunger mute with Marsalis' degree of control and dexterity, and his plunger technique was front and center in "Comes Love." The whinnying high notes, low-register growls and sighing mid-range pitches evoked a long tradition of plunger-mute playing, but Marsalis brought his own New Orleans sensibility to it. Toward the end of the tune, he played an extended blues solo, the plunger mute cupped in one hand and constantly bobbing and weaving across the bell of his horn. A whole lexicon of sound – whispers and cries and laments – came forth.
In this piece, and others, reedist Blanding proved a worthy foil to Marsalis, who long has performed with Blanding in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The tenor saxophonist's tone was deep and dark in "Comes Love," his melodic ideas copious in "Tennessee Waltz." The latter might not have seemed an obvious choice for a quintet of jazz musicians, but Marsalis and the band found plenty of common ground between three-quarter time and a swing-rhythm aesthetic.
Not everything in this program, however, was about standard tunes. The quintet pushed the calendar forward with the ferocious syncopations and hard-edged dissonances of Marsalis' "Number 8" and reached back to the dawning of jazz composition with Jelly Roll Morton's "Tom Cat Blues."
Near the end of the evening, Marsalis again cited saxophonist Freeman in introducing "Look Down That Lonesome Road," which Marsalis sang as a hushed blues.
As the tune wound down to a close and the band played the last few phrases, Marsalis softly chanted, "Von Freeman, Von Freeman, Von Freeman," the name eventually disappearing into silence.
A haunting benediction from one master musician to another.