Chicago jazz legend Fred Anderson has always been modest to a fault. Of course, for this genial performer, that’s part of his onstage charm — when a slightly hunched, soft-spoken man in his 70s approaches the mic and lets loose the fury of hell from his saxophone, it’s hard not to be captivated. And despite being a fixture of the jazz scene in Chicago — credentials include helping found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and being a tutor of sorts to talent around the city — only in the last ten years has Fred really gotten his due. Reissues of old albums and new record deals with labels like Delmark, Okka Disk, and even the trendsetting Thrill Jockey have helped dust off decades of Fred’s work and have given him a chance to record marathon jam sessions at an age when most of his peers are kicking back and collecting Social Security.
With Back Together Again, a duet with drummer Hamid Drake, Anderson once again demonstrates subtle skill and the immense payoffs that years of practice have brought. This whole album shows Anderson continuing to refine his sound, turning down the intensity just a notch from similar efforts, like Duets 2001, recorded with former Sun-Ra drummer Robert Barry. On Back Together Again, Drake’s taut and tame drumming, drawn from a lifetime spent mastering percussion patterns from around the globe, clears a path for Fred to comfortably explore uncharted phrases. The result is a set of gorgeous tracks that slowly flow forward, strutting past without any hurry or moment of indecision.
This comfort wasn’t a recording studio miracle, though — these guys have history. Both were both born in Monroe, Louisiana, though Drake, born in 1955, is 26 years younger. Their camaraderie began in the ’70s, where both of these southern boys met in Chicago. Anderson had established a workshop for developing young talent and crossed paths with a drummer named Hamid, then going by the name Hank. Seeing promise in Hank, Anderson became a mentor and made him feel as close to family as possible. At one point, the Drakes and Andersons even lived together. Drake was even invited to replace Anderson’s son Eugene in his group that would soon tour Europe. Since then, Anderson and Drake have been creative catalysts for each other, playing together in various groups and occasionally gigging together, especially at the Velvet Lounge, Anderson’s jazz club on the South Side of Chicago.
With literally decades of experience playing together and bouncing ideas off each other, it’s no wonder that this album sounds so laid-back and seamless. “Black Women”, dedicated to the musician’s wives, is sublime, with Anderson’s poetic and fluttering riffs interwoven with Drake’s delicate trap work. A slight pause between tracks, and then the title track lumbers into action. Drake showcases his variety on this one, tastefully laying down beats and seemingly never employing the same fill twice. Later, during tracks like “A Ray from the One”, Anderson’s saxophone darts like a bebop bumblebee, yet never loses focus and always forges ahead. It’s a tribute to the maturity of both of these players that they maintain a sense of balance throughout and don’t overplay. Phrases aren’t stretched to the point of breaking, and well-placed moments of silence abound.
Drake’s sublime playing, the foundation for this release, is the crucial element. After his early days working with Anderson, Drake expanded his repertoire considerably, studying everything from reggae beats to tablas. Variety, along with a ferocious power behind the drum set, turned him into one of the world’s most sought-after improv percussionists; he’s played with everyone from Peter Brotzmann to Don Cherry and William Parker. On Back Together Again, Drake lets his softer side creep out, abandoning his sometimes muscular playing to run a clinic on how to turn subtlety into art. He never drowns out Fred and never uses volume to gain attention. Instead, whether he’s hitting a snare or tapping a finger drum, Drake taps out creative, steady patterns. Though he rarely plays the same thing twice, you can still set your watch to his downbeats. Just listen to the exuberance he displays in “Louisiana Strut”.
Back Together Again finally documents an amazing working relationship between two friends and musicians. With such stellar results, it’s almost more unbelievable that nobody has ever had these two record as a duet before. With an album this refined taking 30 years of jamming together to produce, we can only hope the next one doesn’t require so much preparation.