At the time these live sets were captured at Chicago’s famous free-jazz temple, The Velvet Lounge, the bulldozers of unstoppable progress were more or less at the door. Today, the venue’s in the process of relocating, so what we have here—other than a very fine live album and a hugely entertaining DVD—is a living document of a slice of dead history: a ‘picture of the gone world’, if you will.
When not running the Lounge, veteran tenor-man Fred Anderson has long been involved with some of the most cutting-edge members of the Chicago jazz family, from AACM to The Art Ensemble. Here he’s backed by two of the current scene’s most in-demand younger lions and long-time associates, Hamid Drake on drums and Harrison Bankhead on upright bass, for over an hour of intensely creative left-field improvised music culled from two sets on two consecutive nights. Make no mistake, this is a manly sound. Anderson may be 77 years old but his is a powerful, thrashing, muscular tone that’s not afraid to take risks. You get the feeling that, here in his own club, he’s comfortable enough to just blow.
The disc’s opener, “Flashback”, wells up as a mass of heavy, broiling free jazz, before Drake’s ringing ride cymbal gives it a hustling up-tempo urgency, picked up and driven forward by Bankhead. It’s Fred’s gig, though, and before long he’s brought everything back to the primordial soup of formless roilings—his horn revealing order in chaos like the exhalations of Godhead. “Ode to Tip” works off the template of a basic modal bass groove, but it’s imbued with such an exploratory joy—with Drake all over the kit and Bankhead darting out of the groove for quick, funky melodic forays—that it becomes a showcase for the possibilities of infinite variety within a simple form, or, put simply, a definition of jazz. Like Coltrane before him, Anderson repeatedly takes tiny phrases and methodically works through the melodic and rhythmic variations, clinging to a catchy hook and stretching it out beyond the point of recognition.
“By Many Names” brings a change of mood, with Drake moving out from behind the kit to play a hand drum and provide dolorous, soulful chants over Bankhead’s lyrical, strummed bass pattern and Anderson’s understated sax. Then it’s on to the main course: all 23 minutes of the title track. The first 10 minutes at least are one of the finest improvised suites you’re likely to hear. Bankhead kicks it off with a dark and funky bass vamp reminiscent of the main theme from Pharoah Sander’s “Black Unity”, with Drake’s deeply heavy drums building the energy. It’s Anderson, though, who leads the way firstly into a buoyant swing, then a mid-tempo bluesy stomp, and a brief fat-back funk, with bass and drums anticipating and matching his every move. This kind of brilliance is hard to sustain, however, and the energy gives way to a strange, quiet interlude with Bankhead plucking notes from the neck of his bass and swinging a whistling plastic tube above his head, accompanied by atmospheric cymbal play. Just when it seems the performance might have lost its way, Anderson’s back, leading his mates into languorous free jazz territory, building it up, coaxing Drake into a kind of martial, funky parade-ground strut, before bursting back into the original super-charged vamp for a renewed burst down the home stretch.
This is breathtaking stuff made all the more enjoyable on the DVD release by the glimpse it offers into a, now extinct, pulsating heart of jazz, complete with bottles of beer on plastic tables, scurrying bar staff and, don’t-know-how-lucky-they-are punters in varying degrees of wakefulness. There will be no more encores.