December 17, 2009
Staying in the Game
Fred Anderson Quartet
Live at the Velvet Lounge Volume III
Asian Improv AIR 0074
Fred Anderson Trio
Birthday Live 2000
Asian Improv AIR “Official Bootleg”
21st Century Chase
Delmark DE 589
Consistency of expression is what has characterized the playing of Chicago tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson over the years. Furthermore, unlike many other musicians, there hasn’t been a subsequent lessening of his powers as he ages. As a matter of fact, now that he’s reached the venerable age of 80, his improvisational skills are at an exalted peak. Listen to these CDs for proof. They were recorded not only at Anderson’s 80th Birthday Bash, but when he was a comparative youngster of 79, 78 and even 71.
A founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, who recorded sparingly between the late 1960s and mid-1990s, Anderson has nurtured some of Chicago’s younger talents both by gigging with them, as well as giving them a place to play in his now legendary Velvet Lounge. Those years out of the limelight also created an idiosyncratic soloist, who – like Sonny Rollins and Eric Dolphy before him – now possesses an unmistaken reed texture whose sharp split tones carve a unique niche in every tune. Not only does the sax man put a lie to the cliché that “jazz is a young man’s art”, but he also proves that when they age jazzman don’t have to be cuddly and comfortable like Doc Cheatham or Eubie Blake. Additionally, as he demonstrates in four contexts here, stamina, innovation and sonic color aren’t the preserve of any generation. His playing can be threatening to saxophonists of any age.
Over the years Anderson has developed a tight coterie of associates, with many turning up on these discs. The oldest session, Birthday Live 2000, is a trio CD with bassist Tatsu Aoki and drummer Chad Taylor. Seven years later, with Live at the Velvet Lounge Volume III, Taylor and Aoki are still on board and tenor saxophonist Francis Wong joins the trio. Staying in the Game – an understatement if there ever was one when Anderson is concerned – from 2008, features him with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Tim Daisy. Finally 21st Century Chase from 2009, retains Bankhead, brings back Taylor and adds guitarist Jeff Parker and tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan – the later five years Anderson’s junior – whose tenure on the New Orleans scene is roughly analogous to Anderson’s in Chicago.
Anderson’s mature style is much in evidence as early as the first track on Birthday Live 2000. Both incendiary and knife-sharp, his carved-up timbres partition still further as he churns out double-and-triple tongued trills plus jagged Woody Woodpecker-like bites. Rappelling from just below the ligature down through the bow to the bell of his horn and back up again, the saxophonist’s glissandi radiate every which way. His explorations are backed by slapping bass strings plus opposite sticking and cross pulsing from Taylor.
Indefatigable and seemingly never at a lack for ideas – or breath, Anderson brings the same toughness to the third tune, which for all intents and purposes resembles a blues-flecked ballad. After an a capella intro from the tenorist, Aoki’s vibrating and quavering bass line moulds itself around Anderson’s rasping notes as the narrative is lengthened with emphasized phraseology and half-recognizable quotes from other tunes.
Flash forward eight years, and while Anderson has maintained his form, his playing is mellower. Bankhead’s supple walking now explores additional peaks and valleys in his accompaniment, while Daisy’s rolls, pops and bass drum kicks are as sturdy as Anderson’s solos. With the sidemen proficient players on other instruments as well as their own, intimations of other textures – if not the instruments themselves – show up on several tracks.
You could swear for instance that kalimba plucks are pressed into service on “Wandering”, or that Bankhead – who plays the six-string – has added guitar licks to his backing as well. Still the saxophone lines are moderato and unstrained, languid enough to indulge in an interlude of parlando, seconded by Bankhead’s unforced bass strokes. Similarly Daisy’s mallet-driven pulses on “Changes and Bodies and Tones” border on marimba textures as the bassist’s sul ponticello squeaks are moderated mid-range. Summing up the situation, Anderson builds his solo with pointillism, elongating and expanding note dabs and smears into a cohesive whole.
Mellow, yet still tough in his outings, the saxophonist manages to stretch tones almost to the breaking point, without ever severing the thematic thread. If he overblows while vibrating his horn’s metal, as he does on “60 Degrees in November”, the supplementary intervals and vibrations are perfectly balanced as they’re masticated with bites and tongue slaps. Chromatic improvisations from all hold everything together.
This relaxed, yet bellicose command is maintained when facing off against another tenor man, as Anderson does on the last two discs. No one plays for almost 70 years without devising strategies for different situations. Recorded at 2007’s Chicago Asian Jazz Festival, Live at the Velvet Lounge Volume III, for instance, allows the veteran tenor saxophonist to maintain his parameters throughout.
Case in point is a tune such as “Beyond the Bridge”. The head is sounded by Anderson’s harsh, irregular vibrato, then echoed with similar – but more accommodating – tones from Wong’s sax. Gritty, with reed bites and tongue stops, the two aurally march in unison with Taylor’s sticks flying into ruffs and rebounds and Aoki stop-start bass thumps. At times Wong, whose timbre is thinner than Anderson’s, could be playing “Hickory, Dickory Dock” as he operates in double counterpoint to the older saxophonist. That is until the drummer’s double-timed ratamacues and the bassist’s vibrating strings push Anderson to unleash his idiosyncratic stabbing pitches which are then answered by jagged, staccato octaves from the younger saxophonist.
An equivalent tart interface occurs on “Positive Changes”. However the impetus for Anderson and Wong combining for a series of tongue flutters and split tones which modulate up the scale with rubato intonation is some impressive bass work from Aoki. Moving beyond sul ponticello to a strained, near-vocalized pitch, the bassist descends the scale while sounding every string simultaneously.
The scene had been set with “Andersonville”, where each player stakes out his individual musical turf. Aoki’s thumps and pumps, Taylor’s whapping snares and cymbal vibrations plus the lockstep reed-biting and sonic curves from the saxophonists kick in almost as soon as Anderson sounds his signature ferocious cry. From then on Anderson appears to pushing and prodding every musical tone he can find in as many varied angles as he can – and Wong does the same. Steaming ahead, the two build up a polyphonic head of steam, double and triple-tonguing, appending connective arpeggios and sluicing vamps. Crumbling the lines to fine musical powder, the simultaneous staccato spewing never completely obliterates the piece’s musical shape.
Two years later Anderson’s 80th birthday bash at the new Velvet Lounge, not far from the old location, and featuring 75-year-old Jordan as well, was no exercise in nostalgia. The only bow to the past is that the two-part title tune reflects comparable tough tenor battles of the 1940s and 1950s. Adherents of the style were Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons and most pointedly Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray “The Chase”. However sharp ears will notice that by the end of the almost hour long improv here, both John Colrane and Johnny Griffin have been nodded to as well.
No exercise in neo-con nostalgia, this “Chase” announces its modernity from the top: a capella squeaks and squeals in altissimo variants played by Jordan with vocal exhortations and hard air expelling. Anderson counters with a “Pop Goes the Weasel” theme, Taylor and Bankhead hit, Parker twangs – and the chase is on. Jordan, a horse-raising aficionado, uses smears, clipped notes and effective glossolalia to take the lead as Anderson canters besides him with lower-pitched contrapuntal runs. Neck and neck, Jordan’s tone is more splintered and almost in the alto range while Anderson’s growls are practically moderato in comparison. Taylor’s ruffs and flams plus Bankhead’s walking stay back on the track, while Parker’s knob-twisting licks and abrasive twanging provide the equivalent of a spur to a horse’s flanks.
Eventually as diaphragm-vibrated timbres, elastic tonal interpolations and ragged split tones rend the air, both tenor men reach an extended rapprochement. Agitato and staccatissimo, neither can best the other – if that ever was the intention – and each maintains his distinctive identity. Getting to the point where each finishes each other’s phrases, a coda includes Jordan’s nod to Griffin via a quote from “Wade in the Water” and Anderson to Coltrane with a snatch of “A Love Supreme”. The finale showcases perfect parlando double counterpoint.
Bankhead’s sul ponticello introduction of the second part spectacularly exposes both the root notes and their fundamentals, but this pacific interlude soon gives way to more reed flaunting, taken chromatically or in broken octaves. Here and throughout the rest of the CD, the heavily vibrated multiphonic reed runs shares space with the guitarist’s curvaceous strums plus an occasional clank and click from the drummer. With Trane’s “Cousin Mary” and “Giant Steps” alluded to, the two wrap up the exciting essay in impov by honoring their direct influence as well as their tenor forefathers.
An equivalent chase in the future from others would undoubtedly have to touch on the saxophone advances of Anderson himself. From the originator, however, most of are exhibited in multi-faceted examples on these four discs.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 21st: 1. 21st Century Chase Part I 2. 21st Century Chase Part II 3. Ode to Alvin Fielder
Personnel: 21st: Fred Anderson and Kidd Jordan (tenor saxophones); Jeff Parker (guitar); Harrison Bankhead (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums)
Track Listing: Birthday: 1. 22:40 2. 13:14 3. 14:24
Personnel: Birthday: Fred Anderson (tenor saxophone; Tatsu Aoki (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums)
Track Listing: Staying: 1. Sunday Afternoon 2. The Elephant and the Bee 3. 60 Degrees in November 4. Wandering 5. Springing Winter 6. Changes and Bodies and Tones
Personnel: Staying: Fred Anderson (tenor saxophone; Harrison Bankhead (bass) and Tin Daisy (drums)
Track Listing: Live: 1. Andersonville 2. Acceleration 3. Beyond the Bridge 4. Positive Changes 5. Best Time of Life 6. Discreet Identifier
Personnel: Live: Fred Anderson and Francis Wong (tenor saxophones); Tatsu Aoki (bass) and Chad Taylor (drums)