Chicago Trio

Velvet Songs: To Baba Fred Anderson
Rogueart ROG-0030

A tribute disc without including any of the dedicatee’s music, this two-CD set was actually recorded almost two years before the death of Chicago tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson in 2010. But these uncompromising, heart-felt performances captured at the Velvet Lounge, the south-side club Anderson ran for many decades, are more meaningful tributes to the musician and his abiding influence than any lachrymose song recreation.

That’s because, before a late career re-discovery in the 1990s that saw Anderson record dozens of CDs before his death, he was best-known as a club owner – the Birdhouse was his previous venue – and a bandleader who encouraged young talent and gave experimental musicians, mostly, but not exclusively from, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a regular place to play. Each of the Chicago Trio members benefitted from Anderson’s counsel in different ways. Now in-demand for a multitude of gigs in Europe and North America, Hamid Drake was a teenage percussionist given his first professional experience in Anderson’s band. Bassist and cellist Harrison Bankhead, a confrere of the tenor saxophonist in Anderson’s later bands, also worked with other committed improvisers like flautist Nicolle Mitchell and trumpeter Malachi Thompson. Meanwhile Ernest Dawkins, who plays soprano, alto and tenor saxophones plus percussion here played his first gig at the Birdhouse and often played with his New Horizons band at the Velvet Lounge.

Almost a quarter-century younger than his mentor, Dawkins, as can be seen by his choice of instruments and allusions to Africa and the Caribbean in his compositions, is open to more influences than the straight Coleman Hawkins-to-John Coltrane improv ethos which Anderson followed. For instance on “Down n’ the Delta”, a performance that seems inspired by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, he blows both alto an tenor saxophone simultaneously and once the theme is stated goes into an R&B-tinged version of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” As Dawkins’ lines squeak through the narrative, stop-time and staccato, Drake slams a bouncing shuffle beat and Bankhead slaps his bass strings hard. “Jah Music,” which mixes Reggae-styled sways with that of a Jazz ballad, is kept steady by Drake’s duple beats, cow-bell whacks and hearty bounces. At the same time, as fluid in his part as if he was manipulating a bass guitar, Bankhead moves the chromatic line forward. Playing soprano, Dawkins’ initial narrowed split tomes moves through shrill whistles and climaxes with double and triple tonguing, matched with the drummer’s rim shots and rolls.

As masterful with a press roll as Art Blakey, Drake’s facility with it plus paradiddles and wood block accents are given prime exposure on “Sweet 22nd Street (The Velvet Lounge)”. With Dawkins expressing himself in emotional tenor saxophone slurs and repeated melody fragments, the piece builds up to a double-time climax of percussion pops and pressurized glottal punctuation. Although the reedist is also capable of wild Aylerian screams as well as more intense lyricism on his horns, he seems to reserve his most impassioned soloing for the two tracks dedicated to Anderson. “Peace and Blessing (to Fred)” and “One For Fred”.

With the former track featuring Bankhead’s expressive cello lines harmonized with Drake’s frame drum rubs, as the drummer shakes small bells and gongs, the piece is more celebration than threnody. Reaching a crescendo with supple bent notes from the saxophone, the exposition skitters more quickly, than wraps up with a gentling finale from Dawkins on soprano saxophone. The extended “One For Fred”, in contrast features as many quarter tones, reed bites, overblowing and false register excursions from Dawkins’ tenor saxophone as Anderson himself would bring to an impassioned solo. With the percussionist’s pounding driving him ever forward, the saxophonist moves through multiphonics and modular honks plus guttural snarls before climaxing with repeated tremolo phrases. Even so this bravura display is followed every step of the way by quick bounces from Drake.

Without being maudlin or sentimental the strength of the playing and (instant) composing of Dawkins, Drake and Bankhead is as fitting a memorial to Anderson as he and his club’s many customers should rightly expect.

—Ken Waxman

Track List: CD1: 1. Astral Projection 2. Sweet 22nd Street (The Velvet Lounge) 3. You Just Cross My Mind 4. The Rumble 5. Peace and Blessing (to Fred) 6. Down n’ the Delta CD2: 1. Jah Music 2. Galaxies Beyond 3. Woman of Darfur 4. Waltz of Passion 5. Moi Tre Gran Garcon 6. One For Fred

Personnel: Ernest Dawkins (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones and percussion); Harrison Bankhead (bass and cello) and Hamid Drake (drums and frame drum