logo   Birdhouse (OD12007)

Fred Anderson — tenor saxophone
Jim Baker — piano
Harrison Bankhead — bass
Hamid Drake — drums

Cover and Artwork cover

Book design: Louise Molnar
Photographs: Marty Perez

Songs 1. Birdhouse — 18:55 (MPEG2)
(Fred Anderson — Many Weathers/BMI)
2. Bernice — 16:11 (MPEG2)
(Fred Anderson — Many Weathers/BMI)
3. Like Sonny — 15:33 (MPEG2)
(Fred Anderson — Many Weathers/BMI)
4. Waiting For MC — 12:20
(Fred Anderson — Many Weathers/BMI; Hamid Drake — Smiling Forehead/BMI)
Recording Info

Recorded at Sparrow Sound Design, Chicago, IL, February 20, 1995 (track 4 on April 7, 1994)

Produced by: Fred Anderson & Bruno Johnson
Executive Producer: Bruno Johnson
Engineer: Bradley-Parker Sparrow

Liner Notes


Eric Dolphy wanted to know why he shouldn’t imitate birds. Well, some confuse easily. The most bloated house cat gets the drop on them. They fatally dive into the sealed glass expanse of tall buildings. They nose dive straight to the street like blown trash. Then again, some birds are so confident they navigate unerringly beyond predator, obstacle, and death wish. If Fred Anderson, whom someone called the lone prophet of the prairies, were a bird, which he most definitely is not (have you ever heard of one with feathers, descended from the dinosaur, owning and also operating a jamming nook tavern such as Fred’s Velvet Lounge?), Fred’s modus operandi would be the cool bird latter. Whether this navigational knack is innate or blessed from on high raises the subject of an ornerytheology. Suddenly we’re beyond ordinary ornithology. So for now let’s skip it. The best advice, Mr. Dolphy sir, is imitate selectively. Choose the right birds. You know. You did.

SCENE: The Getz Theater, Chicago, December 1-3, 1995. At the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians’ 30th Anniversary Festival, it was a given that ensembles of the wildest variety would take the stage. From the trumpet of Frank Gordon placed in a trio setting with Douglas Ewart’s bamboo flute and Thurman Barker’s trap drums, to the trombone of George Lewis responding in real time to computer-arranged sounds juggled randomly among 10 stage monitors, the urge to experiment with form and musical language is a continuing AACM trademark. In the same way that such stretching combinations typify the music collective, just as typical in its own way was the festival appearance of Fred Anderson with Gene Easton in a twin-tenor setting that evoked a durable musical language no less appealing for its 1960’s vintage and its jazz work ethic.

THE SCENE CHANGES to the Velvet Lounge, Chicago. The Velvet Lounge is one of those vanishing havens for the jam session where veteran musicians glory in the impromptu practice of their craft while student musicians take chances and notes. There’s no wolf at the door. “Smooth jazz” never existed. It’s after the festival, and the way Fred mounts the crowded stage to add a tough tenor flight to "Anthropology" illustrates what it means to be committed to the patient refinement of the “jazz” language. Isn’t that word verboten among some creative musicians, especially when it pigeonholes a player or limits the sky of the music to where it has already been? As if responding to that concern, Fred for several minutes now has corkscrewed his big sinewy frame, horn reaching for the floor as if on worm patrol. Held in Anderson’s giant hands and given wings by his breath column, the black-bodied tenor saxophone with gold keys sounds anything but limited. Fred lifts up and finds new nesting places in the wild blue yonder for the unhoary tradition of horn plus rhythm. Beyond words.

To my ears, it’s a style of playing which Anderson has developed in response to Sonny Rollins (whose portrait graces a wall of the Velvet Lounge), Coleman Hawkins, Gene Ammons, Ornette Coleman, even, I suspect, Chu Berry and a flock of others, but an approach beholden to no master but himself.

I have been listening to Anderson’s music for better than 20 years with growing appreciation. The solo concert medium, the colorist clatter of “little instrument,” the exhaustive exploration of microtonal sound relations, and the already-mentioned novel ensembles common to much AACM activity — all inspirational elements in their natural context — would be superfluous to his vision. Though a charter AACM member since 1965, Anderson obeys a flight plan all his own, balanced somewhere between “ancient and the future,” to cite the organization’s motto.

THE SCENE CHANGES to the votive silver circular object included with this booklet. “Flow” is the word that Fred often uses to assess successful improvising. Rest assured, the OkkaDisk chromium-oxide document of sound currently in your possession comes with flow aplenty both in the solos and the interdynamic responses of a close knit quartet.

The leader lives up to top billing, ironically enough, by keeping low. In yet another departure from saxophone vogue, Anderson dotes on the lower register, hefting an Ur-roots tone in his weighty accumulation of notes for the overall artistic scheme. A characteristic Anderson solo unhurriedly yet authoritatively builds from deceptively simple materials so connected as to suggest an improviser searching for the One Definitive Solo. (We’re back to ornerytheology — because it’s impossible not to hear a spiritual quest in music so strongly driven to integration and self-referentiality that it seems to turn back upon itself.) His distinctive gravity-enamored lines unfold to visceral effect without resorting to the bravado early climaxes and piercing split tones favored by faux-fiery saxophonists. Anderson is too busy inventing otherwise pleasing phrases in obstinate, ever logical relationship to his themes (there’s “flow” again, the coherent succession of sounds) .

As the bluesy "Birdhouse" demonstrates, blues intonation is never far from Fred’s solo flights. (The Birdhouse was Anderson’s ill-fated Lincoln Avenue club that folded circa 1978.) The deliciously oblique introduction suggests a flapping bird threatening to crash land in any number of inconvenient places. The brief melody (strange cousin to Rollin’s "Strode Rode") is pecked over, collated, and remade into insistent arpeggios, bottom scales and spectral staccato runs in a thoughtful and detailed (but never rushed) exposition, a prophetic cipher for the Anderson aesthetic.

Fred Anderson’s solos are not the only reason to cheer this album, but their compelling clarity of development pulls you back for extra listens. The probing rhythmic variation, shrewd phrase lengths, meaningful repetition, and focused restraint should head the holiday gift lists of gaggles of immature players. A similar virtuosity distinguishes "Bernice", an affectingly sad ballad dedicated to Anderson’s ex-wife, this time with the addition of an intriguing Ornette-y device: the bristling motion of the rhythm section lifts the emotional impact of Anderson’s deep reading. The devastating touch of Harrison Bankhead’s bowing is especially effective.

Close musical relationships are important to the workings of Anderson’s music. He thrives on playing with the same people and establishing the trust and knowledge of artistic partners that give a working band its edge. Significantly, Anderson’s longest-running foil, trumpeter Billy Brimfield, a deliciously arch agent of contrast, is absent. Regardless, in this recorded collaboration, everybody listened. Signs of group rapport — and of shared experience playing together — are present from start to finish.

Hamid Drake (who, Fred says, “is never gonna let the music die, he keeps me on my toes”) has enough flexibility and raw power to be percussionist to the whole world. Drake contributes bobbing polyrhythms, flow-friendly killer patterns, and commentary tremors that urge Anderson deeper into his horn while motivating the band.

Like Drake, Bankhead (he of the “many effects on the bass — “that’s Harrison,” in Fred’s words), has spent numerous years under Anderson’s wing in Fred-led bands. His thick-set sound exudes compatibility and ease of association, in addition to ghostly moods on the arco and massive plucked notes from a heard but never seen colossus of a contrabass.

Jim Baker, a Velvet Lounge regular for a few years, “plays melodic lines around the music” according to Fred, but “doesn’t get in the way.” If that sounds like damning by faint praise, just compare Baker’s work with the heaven-storming forays of recent Anderson collaborator, Marilyn Crispell (see OkkaDisk OD12003). ("Waiting for MC", the Drake-Anderson closer to this set, was performed, incidentally, while the proverbial tapes were rolling as they awaited her arrival for the studio rehearsal to that date.) Baker’s agile, attentive chromaticism is far from the snoozy style that you might mistakenly infer from Fred’s comment. The keyboardist keeps his lines marauding and spacious, with playful rhythmic turns which leave necessary (in my opinion) openings for Anderson, Crispell’s piano trapped the reed man in a near-ubiquitous harmonic web. Like Sonny (dedicated to Sonny Stitt and, it figures, the most intense performance) intimates but never imitates the tart bop speedster. In fact, its second half switches in mood and tempo from splintered agitation to floaty rubato freedom, as if to reinforce the idea that Fred’s ornery loyalty belongs to another’ flow and feather. You won’t meet up with Fred Anderson at Disney World in an animatronic gunslinging bird diorama with live-action saxophones anytime soon. There is more in the can from this session. Hallelujah for everything left to be issued from this tempting showcase of a tenor saxophone original, conducively surrounded. Fred’s recorded output is too dear and too scarce for his fans not to hope really hard for more, and really soon. Played like a bird, that Fred. But not Bird.

- Peter Kostakis
Chicago, New Year’s Day 1996



Fred Anderson is from Chicago, a city like Detroit known for the strength of its music scene. High time that he was shown in the light of this great quartet session, Birdhouse. Anderson’s association with Hamid Drake has germinated here with Anderson’s quartet giving a searching performance of his [Anderson’s] compositions. Birdhouse reflects that kind of powerful play where the roots are so strong, the music can evolve farther without losing the thread of its exploration. This level of playing is uncommon in jazz though is often seen in the work of artists linked to the AACM and their European counterparts. His quartet builds up some steam throughout the opener ("Birdhouse"), but it is the ballad ("Bernice") that best shows this bands expressiveness. Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead fuel this session with resourceful work that is crafty in the best way. Jim Baker on piano has a tough act to follow but comes through smiling, his lines cascading under the tenor in equal shades blues and modern. The piano like the saxophone is an instrument where the level of creative development is so high, a performer has to really define for themselves where they are going, to not get lost in the flood. Baker carves out some rich moments on this CD, anticipating Anderson’s moves and feeding the high level of energy. Fiery playing on "Waiting for MC" by all concerned.

- Steve Vickery, Coda Magazine, May/June 1997