Miles Davis: Freddie Freeloader
Miles Davis (trumpet)
Kind of Blue (Columbia/Legacy CK 64935)
Composed by Miles Davis.
Recorded: New York, March 2, 1959
Rating: 95/100 (learn more)
During the first 13 months following jazz.com's launch, our team of 50 contributors reviewed nearly 4,000 tracks, including the entirety of Kind of Blue—except, that is, "Freddie Freeloader." As the writer of many jazz.com reviews, and editor of even more, I'm as guilty as my colleagues of overlooking this lone holdout from jazz's all-time bestselling album.
Clearly the public does not share our indifference. Among the five selections that comprise Kind of Blue, Amazon.com ranks "Freddie Freeloader" as a less popular download than "So What" and "All Blues" but more so than either "Blue In Green" or "Flamenco Sketches."
So how to explain the lack of interest in "Freddie Freeloader" among 50 conscientious and prolific jazz reviewers? I suspect it has to do with the conspicuous absence from that track of pianist Bill Evans, whose role elsewhere in these sessions is widely regarded as second in importance only to Miles Davis himself.
Thematically, "Freddie Freeloader" is something of an orphan in Kind of Blue. In his liner notes for the original release, Bill Evans describes this tune as "a 12-measure blues form given new personality by effective melodic and rhythmic simplicity." But that new personality is to this collection as a thumb is to its four adjacent fingers: part of the family, but stuck below and oriented 90º away from its siblings. As Ashley Kahn notes in his book on the album's making, the initial tune recorded was also its "least melancholy." Not coincidentally, it's the only one on which the famously melancholic Bill Evans does not perform.
Yet melancholy would've been wholly unsuitable for this particular musical portrait. The tune's namesake, Fred Tolbert, was a Philly bartender and hanger-on whose business card cheerfully read "Freddie the Freeloader" and who was described by Miles's soon-to-be-wife Frances as a harmless kook.
For contemporaneous Americans, the name also evoked the comically endearing tramp character played by Red Skelton on his long-running TV show. So think of "Freddie Freeloader" as the Skelton in Kind of Blue's closet.
In this case, though, the star tramp is Wynton Kelly, by then the regular pianist in Miles's band. Kelly is way more than Bill Evans's stand-in here. After Kelly's lightly dancing fills behind the minimalist theme lend the piece its character, his leadoff solo finds him as boppish as Bud, as elegant as Hank Jones, and bluer than a bull's balls in Antarctica.
Miles follows, and will surprise anyone who doesn't readily think of him as a blues player. The long tones, deliberate phrasing and perfect note selection are as authentic in their way as Robert Johnson's midnight deals with the Delta Devil.
Up next, Coltrane wields his inimitable steak knife cutting through rebar. Among tenormen, Stan Getz had dibs on the nickname "The Sound," but Coltrane was if anything even more distinctive. Two notes and you knew exactly who it was. (Of course, by the time your ear registered two notes, Coltrane had played 137.)
Finally Cannonball, one of modern jazz's premier bluesmen, caps off the horn solos with a typically warm embrace, like a hug from that big ole bear of an uncle you can never quite get enough of.
In sum, "Freddie Freeloader" is a delight. Of course, in saying that, I'm not telling jazz fans anything they don't already know. It's we reviewers who sometimes need a while to catch up.
Reviewer: Alan Kurtz
Tags: 1950s jazz