Back Together Again
Thrill Jockey thrill 139

Thirty years after they first played together Chicago-based tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and drummer Hamid Drake have finally got around to recording a duo session.

Fuelled by the flexible sophistication of the percussionist and the homebody maturity of Anderson, there are many fine passages throughout. But as good as it gets, the limitations of hearing only one saxophone and a drummer over more than 72½-minutes — plus an additional CD that includes a QuickTime movie — are apparent.

Known as the lone prophet of the Prairie, Anderson, a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the 1960s, kept a low profile for many years. Although he has led bands since that time, it’s only in the past decade that Anderson, and the Velvet Lounge bar he runs on the city’s near South Side have become internationally known.

Many of his earlier bands were almost workshops for developing talent and his most promising discovery was Drake. Although born in Anderson’s hometown, Monroe, La., the drummer was younger than Anderson’s sons were when he finally hooked up with the older man in Chicago. His versatility in all forms of music has since led to Drake becoming an in-demand percussionist internationally. His associations range from kora player Foday Musa Suso, sintar player Hassan Hakmoun, German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann plus longtime connections with reedist Ken Vandermark and New York bassist William Parker.

Here Drake’s game plan involves outlays of cross-sticking, inverted sticking, bounces, flams, ruffs and rebounds on the regular kit, as well as an extended workout on the resonating frame drum.

It’s his work on that primitive instrument, highlighted on “Lama Khyenno (Dearly Beloved)”, that’s most illustrative of the connections and separateness of the two men. For almost 13 minutes, Drake coaxes a variety of echoes and vibrations out of the large hand drum, chanting and whispering as he manipulates the single drum skin. While keeping the ratcheting beat, the percussionist’s outlay is undeniably mystical, not imitation Third World, the way some jazzbos have approached these sorts of sounds.

While Drake follows his muse, Anderson, whose duo drum partners encompass Robert Barry and Kahil El’Zabar, spins out breathy obbligatos that give as much shape to the other’s lines, as if he was backing up a Billie Holiday ballad, not an ancient chant.

“Black Woman”, which Anderson first recorded in the mid-1990s with a quartet featuring Drake, is another standout. With the saxman’s spiky melody made even starker with minimalist backing, Drake contributes hi-hat splatters and bass drum thumps, while the theme picks up a certain chant-like elaboration.

The older man’s hard and austere texture, with its echoes of 1960s Sonny Rollins, is still flexible enough to adapt when Drake’s hand drumming begins sounding as if he’s whaling a Native Indian drum. Other places Anderson’s repetitions and pitch vibrations often push the younger man into New Thing-like door-knocking rhythms and rim shots.

A shared background may be why the aptly named “Louisiana Strut” appears to shift from calypso to Zydeco. But it’s not the only place Drake plays a shimmy. His shuffle rhythm is so authentic he could be playing at a country dance, while Anderson’s flutter tonguing repeats the same lilting phrases. Putting aside so-called modernism he follows Drake’s flams and hi-hat paradiddles by reprising the melody as the finale.

The almost 14-minute title track points out all the strengths and weaknesses of this dual approach. Although Drake lets loose with beboppy slams and Anderson repeatedly worries phrases with characteristic long-lined but unbending runs, hands, feet and lungs can only produce so many variations. With snorts and glottal stops, Anderson complements Drake’s counter rhythms. Yet by the time the last note is sounded, your aural memory isn’t of the lighter phrases, but of how close this tune sounds to others.

Committed Anderson and Drake fans may ascribe more strength to this singular meeting. Yet the challenges and color of larger combos seem to work better for both.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Leap Forward 2. Black Woman 3. Back Together Again 4. Losel Drolma 5. A Ray from THE ONE 6. Louisiana Strut 7. Know Your Advantage 8. Lama Khyenno (Dearly Beloved)

Personnel: Fred Anderson (tenor saxophone); Hamid Drake (drums)