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'Battle of the Saxes' raises the curtain

Howard Reich

3:55 PM EST, December 27, 2012

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For years, the "Battle of the Saxes" that played the Green Mill Jazz Club each New Year's Eve was less a contest than a lively exchange of ideas between Chicago tenor saxophone icon Von Freeman and former Chicago tenorist Edward Petersen.

The affection that these two men — each of very different generations and backgrounds — held for each other was palpable, Freeman the living symbol of Chicago tenordom and Petersen one of his many great acolytes.

But by last year at this time, Freeman had essentially retired from the stage, due to health challenges, and Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo paired Petersen with another Chicago tenor mainstay, Frank Catalano.

Freeman's death last summer, at age 88, meant that his fragile appearance on the Green Mill stage as 2010 slipped into 2011 was his final New Year's Eve appearance and one of his last major performances anywhere. A magnificent career that influenced uncounted musicians had had its great closing moment at the Mill, and with a national radio audience listening (though, incredibly, no local station carried the event).

This time around, club owner Jemilo has fiddled with the lineup anew, the "Battle of the Saxes" to feature Petersen in one corner and veteran Chicago saxophonist Eric Schneider in another. Billed as a "Tribute to Von Freeman," the event really could turn into a blowing contest, for each of these men comes equipped with a formidable technique and a great deal to say.

Petersen commands an enormous sound and a penchant for veering far outside the jazz mainstream, via fantastically weird chord changes, bizarre scales and unconventional time signatures. Schneider offers a somewhat airier tone and more nimble approach, but he, too, can produce great gales of sound whenever he wishes.

That they'll be joined by pianist Willie Pickens, bassist Brian Sandstrom and drummer Robert Shy reminds listeners that this will be a major event, with each of these musicians bringing decades of experience to the bandstand.

Moreover, they'll playing together for two nights even before New Year's Eve, suggesting that the quintet should be hitting quite hard by the time 2012 gives way to 2013.

For jazz listeners, this could be an ideal way to bring in the new year.

"Tribute to Von Freeman: Battle of the Saxes" plays at 9 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 8:30 p.m. Monday at Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway. $15 Friday and Saturday; $30, Monday; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

Also worth hearing

Roy Hargrove: The eminent trumpeter has made his visit to Chicago for New Year's Eve week a bona fide tradition, and the engagement stands as one of the highlights of the year. Hargrove remains a top-notch, fiercely lyrical player, and audiences pack the Jazz Showcase to hear him close out the year. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; 8 and 11 p.m. Monday; $30-$80; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

Typhanie Monique: The appealing Chicago singer hasn't been appearing in clubs very much for the past couple of years because she has been in graduate school studying vocal pedagogy. Considering her penchant for swinging freely among jazz, pop, funk and what-not, the classical training seems like only to deepen her artistry. She takes a rare break from school with this engagement, which will include jazz standards and holiday fare. 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com

KT McCammond: A cabaret singer with plenty of voice and even more attitude, McCammond tends to fill any room with brass, sass and smarts. Katerina's, an intimate space, may never be the same. 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Road; $10; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com

Chicago Jazz Orchestra: Jeff Lindberg's long-running big band presents an unconventional program: "The Grand Wazoo and Other Delights: A Tribute to Frank Zappa," with guests Ernie Watts, Mark Wood and Dave Morgan. 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.; $35; chicagojazzorchestra.com or 312-409-3947

Sabertooth: The rambunctious band has been holding the late-late-slot Saturday nights at Green Mill for 20 years, its gutsy playing just right for the occasion and the setting. Saxophonists Cameron Pfiffner and Pat Mallinger light up the front line, with Pete Benson on Hammond B-3 organ and Ted Sirota on drums. Midnight (Saturday night) to 5 a.m. Sunday at Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $5 cover from midnight to 2 a.m.; no cover from 2 to 5 a.m.; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

Joan Collaso: A straightforward singer with an earthy sense of swing, Collaso will headline the last session of the year presented by the nonprofit Hyde Park Jazz Society in Room 43. The evening has been billed as a "Holiday Jam," so expect seasonal tunes. That could be appropriate for the setting, which feels less like a club environment than a neighborhood get-together. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; valet parking available; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com

Corey Wilkes: A trumpeter for many occasions, Chicagoan Wilkes tours the world in a wide range of musical contexts, from the experimental reaches of the Art Ensemble of Chicago to more contemporary, mainstream fare. He returns home to usher in the New Year in a room that he works more often than most, Andy's Jazz Club. This should offer an exuberant way to trumpet in 2013. 9:30 p.m. Monday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $35; by reservation only; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com

Victor Garcia: A fast-rising Chicago trumpeter, Garcia blows in the New Year fronting a Latin band. Garcia has developed into an increasingly accomplished soloist, bandleader and composer, which suggests this could be a New Year's Eve engagement with real substance. 10 p.m. Monday at Katerina's, 1920 W. Irving Park Road; prices vary; reservations required; 773-348-7592 or katerinas.com

Fat Babies: This ensemble of mostly young musicians released one of the best recordings of 2012, "Chicago Hot" (Delmark Records). The care and ebullience with which the Fat Babies play music of the 1920s and '30s distinguishes this band from other early-period jazz organizations. 9 p.m. Tuesday at Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $6; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

To read more on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich