Yet another gem from John Corbett’s “Unheard Music Series” on Atavistic. The brilliant and iconoclastic tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson has been a stalwart on the Chicago scene for four decades. Bridging the gap from the experimental genius of the AACM movement in the mid-‘60s to the innovative work of Ken Vandermark and Tortoise today, Anderson is a key figure in the evolution of jazz in Chicago. Up until now, anyone interested in tracing the shifts and transformations that “the lone prophet of the prairie” has undergone over his long career are likely to have defeated by the enormous, gaping holes in Anderson’s recording career (including an almost 15 year pause right in the middle of it.) Recorded in 1980, The Milwaukee Tapes not only allows us to get a glimpse of Anderson in the midst of one of the most exciting periods in his career, but also gives us a chance to hear this Olympian jazz man play live in all his glory.
While the other releases in Corbett’s series have focused on re-releasing influential, out-of-print recordings of some of the innovators of free jazz, The Milwaukee Tapes, Vol. I is on the whole more lyrical and melodic than (say) Joe McPhee’s Nation Time. It is also the first of the Atavistic series not to have been previously issued in any format. Culled from an 8-track recording made of Anderson’s quartet in a now forgotten jazz club in Milwaukee (even the date is unclear: the credits read “January or February 1980”), this is the very first time that these recordings have been made available to the general public. With a talented group of players who have been constants in Anderson’s life providing the backdrop to Anderson’s inventive playing (the amazing Billy Brimfield on trumpet, Larry Hayrod on bass and Hamid Drake on drums), it’s hard to believe that these recordings didn’t see the light of day earlier.
The album opens with Anderson’s mournful sax working its way thoughtfully and expressively through 17-plus minutes of low-key rumbling from the band. “A Ballad from Rita” is followed by the equally Herculean “The Bull”—19 minutes of alternately fiery and introspective solos framed by Mingus-like opening and closing compositional bookends. “Black Women” reminded me of Mingus as well-the Mingus of The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady—though Anderson keeps things looser and more fluid. Hamid Drake’s work on the tablas infuses “Bombay (Children of Cambodia)” with an urgency matched by Anderson and Brimfield’s horns. The final track, “Planet E”, ends the album with a flurry of splayed notes that are, nevertheless, in Anderson’s trademark way, controlled and deployed with precise effect—free jazz less as the spotches of action painting than the pin-point dabs characteristic of pointillism. Amazing stuff: I hope that there’s a Vol. 2 in the offing.