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Safe At Home by Russ Freeman

Even though he was one of the important jazz piano players in the West Coast jazz scene of the 1950’s, performing with Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, Charles Mingus, Art Pepper and others, Russ Freeman recorded few albums of his own as a leader. Fortunately, his performance at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver in 1959 was recorded. Now, 46 years later, we have the opportunity to hear Freeman’s piano playing in a leadership role, as he performs the music of his choosing before an audience, rather than hearing him in the background of another jazz artist’s recording.

And so, Safe At Homeis an significant contribution to the limited discography that Freeman offers. The New Penguin Guide To Jazz lists just one, One On One, with Manne on drums, later in Freeman’s career in 1982, rather than one representing his vital work as she helped to shape the direction of West Coast jazz in the fifties. And the All Music Guide To Jazz lists a Pacific Jazz release that compiles performances from 1953 to 1957 with Manne and bassists Joe Mondragon and Monty Budwig. Who knows, but that there may be other Russ Freeman performances yet on tape that haven’t seen release yet?

Freeman remained busy in music throughout his life, transitioning from jazz pianist to film scoring and composition before his death in Las Vegas in 2002. But on Safe At Home, we hear Freeman as a confident, aggressive pianist with a strong left hand that drives songs like his own compositions "Fan Tan," "Fungo" and "Backfield In Motion," the left hand characterizing each of the songs with a varying moods. The cleverness of Freeman’s song list leads the audience from the familiar and comforting songs like "The Party’s Over" and "Sweet And Lovely," though performed in his own style, to end the concert with his own compositions. The fact that four of the last five songs are Freeman’s, three of them with baseball themes, suggests Freeman’s talent as a composer, and one of his compositions, "The Wind" (recorded even by Mariah Carey), has become a jazz classic.

Unfortunately, the names of the drummer and bassist at the Vancouver date couldn’t be determined, and the circumstances for discovering and producing the tape of Freeman’s 1959 concert aren’t explained. But the recording quality is at a high level, the nuances of Freeman’s playing can be heard with clarity, and the mix with the bass and drums allows each of the instruments to be heard, perhaps as a result of Bill Szawlowski’s digital editing and re-mastering. Safe At Home is a rare find and an important piece for filling in the work of Freeman, who was as influential in his own way as other white bebop pianists of the time like Al Haig and Claude Williamson.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Russ Freeman
  • CD Title: Safe At Home
  • Genre: BeBop / Hard Bop
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: Just A Memory
  • Tracks: The Party’s Over, Sweet And Lovely, Lush Life, Billie’s Bounce, With A Song In My Heart, Fan Tan, Safe At Home, Yesterday’s Gardenias, Fungo, Backfield In Motion
  • Musicians: Russ Freeman (piano)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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