Back At The Velvet Lounge
Delmark DG-549

He was a late starter when it came to a recording, but now in his early seventies, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson turns out new CDs with regularity of a lunchtime chef at a down-home pancake house. Like that cook, Anderson’s stack of hotcakes are unpretentious, filling, and of uniformly high quality.

Anderson, who has owned, managed and played at his Velvet Lounge club in Chicago’s South Loop for more than 21 years, has dealings with the public on the par with any pancake spot manager. While the jazz he plays at the Lounge is consistently piping hot, he’s enough of as businessman to often vary the menu slightly.

This time out Tatsu Aoki, his regular bassist, shares the timekeeping duties with 8 Bold Souls’ Harrison Bankhead on one track, while Bankhead adds his acoustic guitar to Jeff Parker’s electric on another. Chad Taylor, who now lives in New York, holds down the drum chair. But the biggest change is with the brass section. Instead of Anderson’s longtime associate Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter is Maurice Brown, a player who is a scant 52 years younger than Anderson.

All and all, though, this is what you might hear on a typical evening at the Velvet, where any advertised band usually has a few guests sitting in before the end of the night. There are only fives tunes — titled after the fact — with the shortest running more than 10 minutes.

That one, “Syene”, gives the trumpeter space to show off his mellow, muted tone, playing at a leisurely pace before finally twisting out a brassy tone. After he works his way chromatically up to some spectacular buzzes that explode from the bell, Anderson takes over, slurring severe lines with just bass and drums behind him. By the end he’s leading Brown, who follows his lead like a puppy chasing a fox.

The older man’s barbed, biting tone gets a workout on the almost 15½-minute “Olivia”, a dissonant ballad. Anderson’ sour cutting tone with its hints of Sonny Rollins-style harshness, is put in greater relief by gentle chording from Parker. Throughout the six-stringer’s airy finger picking is light and smooth enough to earn comparisons with Jim Hall; there’s certainly little hint of the post-rock persona he used with bands like Tortoise or Isotope. After a solid, if unspectacular, low-toned workout from Bankhead, Anderson’s reenters and interrupts the growls, that help him scoop out great shovelfuls of perfectly balanced notes, for variations on the same seven-note pattern — an old Rollins trick — that gets him and the tune to the end.

That same sort of high intensity output enlivens the rest of the CD. Taylor adroitly sounds his cowbell, woodblock and snares, while Aoki’s deep tone cleaves to the beat, then slithers down the scale. Brown trills triplets and ricochets tones around the room, while never overpowering the rest with a Gabriel-like stance. When he solos, Brown approaches notes from many angles, then snaps out new variations at higher pitches. As always, Anderson sounds as he could go all night, pushing out R&B-style honks and tobogganing repeated split tones without the hint of difficulty or age.

“Job Market Blues”, featuring Bankhead’s acoustic guitar is the one misstep however. Clanking dual guitars make the piece sound a lot more like a bossa nova than a blues and Bankhead’s acoustic bottleneck grates against Parker’s more assured style. Overall the vamps and resonation appears to make the piece discordant in an off-handed manner, with the result shaped by confusion rather than plan. Even Anderson sounds little nonplussed.

Still you have to give the 74-year-old credit for experimenting with new condiments added to his usual menu. Skip over the blues and you’ll hear another first-class Anderson session all the way.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Fougeux+ 2. Olivia+* 3. Job Market Blues^* 4. Syene* 5. King Fish*

Personnel: Maurice Brown (trumpet); Fred Anderson (tenor saxophone); Jeff Parker (guitar); Harrison Bankhead (guitar^, bass+); Tatsu Aoki (bass)*; Chad Taylor (drums)