Fred Anderson’s funky Velvet Lounge, located on Chicago’s near South Side, is known for its legendary jam sessions where both established and new musicians gain exposure and try out new ideas. This is what jam sessions have always been about, of course, but Anderson hosts one of very few that lives up to its name. Anderson is living up to his ideals, which he put into practice as a cofounder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians back in the ‘60s. The Association spawned many avant-garde jazz musicians, including the famed Art Ensemble of Chicago, but Anderson stayed here in Chicago, working day jobs and playing until the ‘80s, when he took over the Velvet Lounge. Since there weren’t a lot of paying gigs, Anderson started the jam sessions at the Lounge. He didn’t charge admission or charge more for drinks, but he always paid the band, usually with his own money.
For a long time it was difficult to find any recorded work by Anderson, but thankfully that is no longer the case. The Velvet Lounge is recognized as a full-fledged jazz club these days, and Fred has had eight CDs released (not to mention some reissues) since 1991. Not surprisingly, the best tend to be those recorded at the Velvet Lounge, since Anderson and his group are very comfortable there. On the Run was recorded there in March of 2000, and features bassist Tatsu Aoki and drummer Hamid Drake, both of whom have been working with Anderson for some time. The results demonstrate the remarkable energy and unique style that this Chicago jazz great can still generate in his seventies.
The disc opens with a melodic Anderson solo cadenza on “Ladies in Love”. It gives an opportunity to hear Anderson’s debt to Lester Young, with his melodic flow and ability to move from a swirling bebop line into a gorgeous ballad-like melody. “On the Run” features the drumming of Hamid Drake, a real innovator. Listening to him explode on this number as well as the aptly named “Hamid’s on Fire” is what it must have felt like to hear Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, or Elvin Jones for the first time as they were first freeing the drums from the constraints of straight timekeeping. Anderson and Drake have been playing together since the 1970s, so it’s no surprise that their playing is so sympatico.
“Tatsu’s Groove” allows bassist Aoki to work in more of a walking bass line, and the song, despite a couple of energetic bursts of Caribbean rhythm, sounds more like a traditional bebop chart than anything else on the disc. It allows the trio to demonstrate their ability to create a coherent group statement even as each member remains restless and searching. Even when it’s threatening to explode into something more freeform, this track swings fiercely.
Fred Anderson is what jazz musicians have always been about—learning to craft their music over a lifetime, never feeling like they’ve “arrived”, and nurturing new generations of talent by providing an example and providing them with the opportunity to learn and grow in a supportive environment. That there are still musicians like Anderson out there says a lot about the attraction of creating improvised music, even in an environment where the monetary rewards are few. Hearing performances like those on On the Run, tossed off matter-of-factly as though these guys could do it in their sleep, one is deeply impressed by the work and immersion in craft that it takes to arrive at such a point. But Anderson and his cohorts never call attention to their formidable technique at the expense of driving the music forward and creating an exciting listening experience for the audience. If more jazz musicians worked this way, maybe it would be a more popular musical genre.