Fred Anderson

December 21, 2001

Dark Day
Atavistic Unheard Music UMS/ALP 218 CD

Fred Anderson
On The Run
Delmark DE-534

Good things come to those who wait is an expression that was never has more currency than when it’s applied to the career of brawny Chicago tenor sax stylist Fred Anderson. Anderson, was practically unknown and definitely under-documented for almost three decades after his recording debut on Joseph Jarman’s Song For in 1966.

Today that’s all changed. He practically doesn’t have the time to play at and manage his bar, The Velvet Lounge, in Chicago’s near South Side, so busy is he travelling in North America and Europe and working with his own bands and other members of the improv community. He even has a personal manager.Because of this, CDs of newer and archive material are continuously being released. ON THE RUN, for instance, was recorded in March 2000 at the Velvet Lounge. Dark Day, which dates from 1979, couples a quartet session done in Chicago with a never-before-released souvenir of the same band’s appearance at a festival in Verona Italy.

One glance at the personnel gives an idea of Anderson’s appeal and persistence. Drummer Hamid Drake is on both sessions, recorded 21 years apart, while quartet trumpeter Billy Brimfield regularly plays with Anderson to this day. ON THE RUN’s bass duties are handled by Tatsu Aoki, a long time Anderson associate, who often leads his own Asian-American projects in Chicago, while the unknown Steve Palmore was on hand in 1979.

As a literal record of what a typical set at Velvet Lounge sounds like, the new CD is instructive. But, like many performances put together without recording in mind, a certain sameness creeps in after a while. It’s not that the playing isn’t good. Exciting playing is given an added impetus by immediacy and location. On disc, though, certain planning should be done with art that’s going to be consulted again and again — especially when only a trio is involved.

The disc starts out promisingly enough with a breath-taking 4½-minute unaccompanied tenor solo from Anderson, with his hard, harsh tone reverberating throughout the room. It certainly proves that at 71, Anderson has lost none of his stamina or inventiveness. However when Aoki and Drake get a chance to individually take solos on the final two tracks, each wisely limits himself, allowing the other two to spell them before they go too far. Aoki’s archer’s pull on the strings works because Anderson places a short, jaunty melody in its vicinity, begins trading fours with Drake and interests the bassist in creating percussion sounds on the side of his instrument, punctuating that with the odd string pluck. Later the saxophonist’s Sonny Rollins-like Caribbean-Latin phrases and some bass runs leaven Drake’s work out on the final track before the drummer becomes overbearing. Seemingly the saxophonist still has more energy than his younger compatriots.

As a matter of fact, it appears that this session works best when the other two get out of the way and give Anderson all the room he needs. Even on the slower numbers he builds his solos out of knife-sharp single notes embellished with the occasional protracted tone swoop, sometimes digging down to baritone range. To keep up, Drake will often splash his cymbals, begin tapping on cowbells, or introduce Art Blakey-style press rolls. Aoki, on the other hand, will move the beat up and down, sometimes appearing to entangle himself at the very top of the bass neck. When that happens, the saxophonist has to call one or both back to the theme with something that resembles a higher-pitched clarion. Fewer solos and more group music would have improved then situation.

It’s a different story on the 1979 discs, centred around the two-part harmonies which Anderson and Brimfield even then had been working on for years. The difference is that on tunes like “Saxoon” Anderson plays the same as he does today — and probably did in the 1960s — while the trumpeter works in a quicksilver, freebop, almost hard bop style. The same thing happens on the title tune with the saxophonist honking and double-timing, backed by thunderous bass chords, while Brimfield’s work seems more conservative.

Proceedings get a little harder and rougher on the Chicago version of “Three On Two”. Especially impressive is when the sax player begins constructing variations upon variations on a tune he obviously knows well and is instantaneously joined by the snare and cymbals of Drake. Reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison, the previously and afterwards unknown Palmore asserts himself with a bowed bass interlude that while a little screechy in the upper register at least allows him to sound two strings simultaneously. As he strums, plucks and bows Drake brings out his mallets for a firmer attack. Only 23 at the time, his own “The Prayer” — now called “Bombay[Children of Cambodia]” and still played today — highlights the drummer’s future stature. He performs the leisurely composition on tablas, gradually revving up the tempo as his notes are mirrored by the bassist playing in cello range and sharp trumpet lines.

Brimfield was in particularly fine form four days later at the Verona Jazz Festival, creating some of the most unfettered and edgy improvisations of his career. Palmore and Drake sound fine as well, but much of Anderson’s work is sabotaged by the recording equipment. Somehow the mikes seems to have been placed in such a way that the rhythm section is overloud and the saxophonist consistently distant. It gets a little irritating to try to hear him solo in the background as the bass and drums loudly accompany him in foreground

On this version of “Three On Two”, which counts in at about twice the length of the Chicago one, he nearly disappears at the beginning of the track, only to be succeeded by the trumpeter when he starts to pick up speed. Brimfield is exceptional, though, playing with the familiar melody the way Anderson did in Chicago and pumping out little ditties in the course of his solo. Drake’s subtle cymbal timbres frame the saxophonist, unlike the rest of his drum kit, and when he can be heard more clearly Anderson seems to be building his contribution out of single notes held for inordinate lengths of time.

Balance is almost restored on “Dark Days” – – which is also, in a shorter version, on disc one — as the saxist and brassman create some two-part harmony, playing parallel lines and almost the same notes at complimentary tempos and pitches. On his own, perhaps conscious of the strange mike placement, Anderson appears to be biting off little parts of the head and playing rugged variations on them. Even Palmore gets into the spirit, producing tough, guitar-like strums.

So there you have it, three live views of Fred Anderson’s art, recorded at different times and places with mike placement, crowd sounds, impressive improv flights and mistakes preserved for all to hear.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Run: 1.Ladies in Love 2. On The Run 3. Smooth Velvet 4. Tatu’s Groove 5. Hamid’s On Fire

Personnel: Run: Fred Anderson (tenor saxophone); Tatsu Aoki (bass); Hamid Drake (drums)

Track Listing: Dark: Disc 1: 1. Dark Day 2. Saxoon 3. Three on Two 4. The Prayer. D Disc 2: 1: The Bull 2. Three on Two 3. Dark Day

Personnel: Dark: Billy Brimfield (trumpet); Fred Anderson (tenor saxophone);  Steve Palmore (bass) and Hamid Drake (drums)