Fred Anderson: Back at the Velvet Lounge

Fred Anderson
Back at the Velvet Lounge

Fred Anderson has a lovely sound on tenor saxophone, bigger than Sonny Rollins and more on the lines of the sort of thing Charlie Rouse and Anderson’s fellow-Chicagoan (and still mourned friend and possible exemplar) Gene Ammons worked out — in succession to Coleman Hawkins. The wild invigoration of the opening “Fougeux” is more like Rollins, playing free, or free-ish. Young Maurice Brown builds up quite an intensity on trumpet, over the bass of Harrison Bankhead and Chad Taylor’s drums. (Tatsu Aoki takes over the bass from track three, on which Bankhead plays acoustic guitar very loudly).

Track two, “Olivia”, is more in the Hawkins line, slow-medium pace (a term used in cricket of bowlers who frequently use their fingers and the atmosphere to make the ball swing — which fits perfectly). The long barely accompanied tenor solo intro comes close again and again and sometimes right into Hawkins’s lines on the pathbreaking “Body and Soul”. There’s a neat guitar solo from Jeff Parker and some stunning duetting of bowed bass over plucked and walked; deep wailing, followed by interaction between both sets of fingers on respective bass strings, and the drummer. It builds up into a carillon, “the bells! the bells!”, with Anderson joining in developing different expressions and modulations of a repeated figure on his horn — holding together the contrapuntal tolling. This is an experience, all fifteen minutes of it (the other tracks average something above 12 minutes).

My Heavens, this is a wonderful performance; “Job Market Blues” opens with the two guitars doing all sorts of thing with Tatsu’s bass interweaving, the drums swishing, and Anderson entering like an angry old Hawkins and with a delicate edge. Bankhead has a considerable attack on guitar, which he plays in a strange atmospheric style, just as if he was playing a virtuosic bass part, and going into almost a blues style or even coarse flamenco. This is not a standard blues, but full of blues feeling as if the first four bars were simply drawn out.

Brown is back on “Syene”, which sounds like a different take on Harry Edison’s “Centerpiece”, though Brown (fifty-two years younger than Anderson) is in more of a Freddie Hubbard bag. He takes it down with half-valving to almost a whimper, and back comes the boss in Hawkins free mode; Tatsu is immense, walking as Anderson takes a phrase, repeats or more usually develops it, until Brown joins in again.

In “King Fish”, the opening tenor-trumpet unison goes into a trading-off between the horns, Anderson making siren noises and playing trumpet licks. Anderson’s solo over shifting rhythmic figures between bass and drums is distinguished again by his massive tenor sound, and this stuff would be rhythmically gripping even if the tenor player was playing on one note. Brown is at his best when his sound is thickened by a middle register overflowing.

It’s all of a high quality and a jazz quality. There is a depth which distinguishes this music from a lot of stuff which came out as “free” thirty and more years ago. Anderson is never content to play mere lines; he is as complete a tenor player as could be hoped for, not to be confused with the habit of rather too many younger men for too long, of sidelining musical considerations in favour of what they’ve probably supposed tribute to John Coltrane.

I’d like to hear Anderson play a straightforward blues and some kind of swing-to-bop roarer and a ballad or two. Another time. This is anything but a complaint about what this pioneer of the Chicago avant-garde did on a November night in 2002 in the weekdaytime diner other-times club he took over or inherited from a buddy and maintains as a blowing-centre for the Chicago’s avant-garde or free (as it used to be called) jazz music.

Whereas “Fougeux” goes back into a theme statement at the end and brings it to a climax, several other titles stop with what is nearly a surprise. It can take a moment to appreciate that the musicians for a long time knew where they were going. Suddenly, plainly, they have gotten there. Back at the Velvet Lounge, where they recorded before.