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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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) .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Chicago, New Year’s Day 1996