There aren’t a million jazz trombonists out there composing and leading their own groups, but when one does come down the pike, they tend to be fairly individualistic and fresh. I’m thinking about players like J.J. Johnson (of course), Roswell Rudd, Robin Eubanks, and Ray Anderson. A Chicago native and veteran of New York’s jazz loft scene, Anderson has a really fat sound, a great deal of technical facility, and a sly humor in his compositions that sometimes recalls Charles Mingus or Carla Bley.
On his latest album, Bonemeal, recorded before a live audience, Anderson seeks to connect in a very direct way, his music often recalling New Orleans brass bands, even while his compositions work their way through multiple time changes and create an atmosphere of sophistication. If Anderson had been born in a different time, he could easily have been one of those distinctive voices in Duke Ellington’s band, so great is his command of his instrument.
Anderson is backed on this effort by a trio that includes Mark Helias on bass, Matt Wilson at the drum kit, and versatile guitarist Steve Salerno, who can turn in a lyrical solo one minute (“Green Eyes, Fireflies”) and create a percussive edginess the next (“Bonemeal”). The group creates a wonderful setting for Anderson’s ebullient playing.
The opening number, “Bonemeal” careens effortlessly between a blues with a rubbery melody and second-line rhythm and a more abstract, pensive section, setting up the duality that lies at the heart of this group’s performance. “Microwave Woman”, a straightforward, raunchy blues that allows Ray to do some vocalizing and a gutbucket solo that at times recalls one of his heroes, Trummy Young. On “Kind of Garnerish”, a nod to pianist Erroll Garner, Anderson plays sousaphone with the same facility that he exhibits on trombone. The number is a straightforward swinger, and the group digs in and rides the groove. Bassist Helias gets to come to the fore as well, playing cat and mouse with Anderson and driving the tune forward.
“Green Eyes, Firelies” has an Ellingtonian sound and Ray’s plunger-muted work here demonstrates just how well he could have fit into Duke’s stable of distinctive instrumental voices. “Choppers” recalls Anderson’s lounge jazz and avant-garde days before slipping, about two minutes in, into a driving surf-rock beat over which Ray solos with a vengeance. “Blues Bred in the Bone” uses an ostinato pattern by Anderson and Helias to allow Matt Wilson freedom on the drums, and he turns in a nice solo, bubbling and erupting with cross-rhythms and accents that provide real excitement.
Ray sings again on “Snoo Tune”, a cute little song for his young daughter. Though it’s doubtful Anderson will ever be known primarily as a vocalist (or that he wishes to be), he sings and scats on this number with an exberance and jubilation worthy of Louis Armstrong. The disc closes with a beautiful reading of the Ellington/Strayhorn tune “Star Crossed Lovers”, a tune that originally appeared on Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder album, on which he and Strayhorn explored Shakespearean themes and characters. The original featured the work of tenorman Paul Gonsalves and alto sax great Johnny Hodges. Here, Anderson and Steve Salerno provide the counterpoint. Anderson’s tone on this is every bit as beautiful and transcendent as Hodges’, and that’s saying a lot.
It would be easy to complain that Bonemeal doesn’t provide any real new perspective or herald great changes for Ray Anderson, but that really isn’t the point. First, it is clear that the group’s main objective here was to play some great music, have some fun, and communicate with their audience, all of which they succeed in doing. Second, not every jazz recording has to be a breakthrough-sometimes the joy of hearing a first-rate musician doing what he or she does best is reward enough. On Bonemeal, Ray Anderson and company provide plenty of rewards for the willing listener.