As bebop musicians go, Carter Freeman has a pretty typical life: He grows up poor, his father and brother are murdered by white Southerners, he moves to the big city, he's invited to Paris, he plays a lot of trumpet, and then, without explanation, he just disappears. Like Buddy Bolden and Cat Stevens, Freeman's freewheeling life leads to a mysterious denouement, and nobody's exactly sure what happened.
But unlike Bolden's alleged schizophrenia, and Stevens' dramatic religious awakening, Freeman's finale is fairly boring -- and as a story, so is FreeMan in Paris, a one-man-show written and performed by Herb Newsome and produced by New Horizon Theatre. Freeman doesn't drink, doesn't get jealous, and he doesn't appear to date. He's the only member of his five-man-band who can pay rent and resolve feuds. By Jazz Era standards, Freeman isn't just a goodie-two-shoes -- he's a saint. And like most saints, his story drowns in clichés: Listen to your heart. Follow your dream. Treat friends like family. Don't dwell on the past. You could find the same themes in most baseball movies.
In contrast, actor Herb Newsome is positively amazing. Newsome is a New York-based actor and film veteran, but it's clear he's also a writer, a history buff and something of a musician himself. Newsome uses a range of voices, from a lispy sax-player to an old woman, and he holds entire conversations with himself, incorporating as many as five distinct characters. The most complex passage, a rousing dialogue about the word "free," is the play's only truly poignant scene. Newsome's physicality is precise, allowing him to morph into child, father, mother, friend and, when times are particularly great, Miles Davis himself.
Newsome's most impressive feat is to play along to a pre-recorded jazz set, alternating between trumpet, piano, sax, drums and upright bass. It's easy to accuse such solo artists of showing off, but Newsome weaves this scene into the story, flimsy as it may be. And as one of the band-mates notes, "Music is life." So who really needs a story at all?
In many ways, Newsome's project reminds me of Mark Twain Tonight, the solo show performed by Hal Holbrook and based on Twain's writings. Holbrook has performed the show, off and on, for the past 50 years. He's grown older than Mark Twain ever got. Twain never memorized his own canon, but Holbrook has. And while Twain died lonely and cantankerous, Holbrook has become more charismatic than ever. Sometimes, people just outdo their muses.
FreeMan in Paris continues through Sun., Feb. 22. New Horizon at Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. 412-431-0773.