In his essay for the Village Voice’s 2006’s Pazz and Jop poll, Greg Tate commended Bob Dylan for continuing to make challenging art in his old age. Tate asserted that Dylan stands among a select group of artists who “make you feel like whatever they get into tomorrow will be infinitely more arresting or ahead of the curve or in the moment than whatever YouTube-sucking nostalgia trip we’re on now”. And who are the other musicians who, according to Tate, remain so forward-thinking while their peers have plateaued? They’re all free jazz performers: Bill Dixon, Sam Rivers, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman.
Tate’s praise for all of these men is on the money; he could stand to be more inclusive, however, in circumscribing his field of perpetually inventive gray-headed jazzmen. Any given Vision Festival features a range of nimble-minded and -fingered senior citizens. And Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) boasts a number of Social Security-eligible artists who are still stamping out new aesthetic terrain, as evidenced by albums like Streaming, a 2006 recording of rich-hued, laptop-arranged modern compositions by Chi-Town stalwarts George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Seventy-seven year-old AACM tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson was also productive last year: he relocated his storied jazz club Velvet Lounge, and he teamed up with a group of longtime associates and new collaborators to record From the River to the Ocean, as stylistically diverse a project as he’s ever attempted.
So those expecting an album of sax and drum duets like those heard on 2004’s Back Together Again, the last disc to feature the names of Anderson and Hamid Drake splashed across its cover, will hopefully find this offering a pleasant surprise. Joining the core duo are Harrison Bankhead — an AACM member and past Anderson collaborator — on cello, piano, and bass, Jeff Parker (of Tortoise and Isotope 217 fame) on electric guitar, and Josh Abrams (from post-rock unit Town and Country) on bass and guimbri, a three-stringed Gnawan instrument.
Anderson keeps his own playing clean and formally simple, dishing out straightforward bluesy progressions. “Strut Time”, a tune with which Anderson often closes his sets, opens with a classic bebop head: eloquent, effective chord changes and carefully placed notes matter most here, and Anderson provides both masterfully. The other musicians also maintain their senses of purpose and swing throughout the piece. Drake peppers each measure with spasmodic fills and energetic tics, but he never breaks fully from the pocket. When Bankhead (on cello here) and Parker are given room to solo, they express themselves more ostentatiously than Anderson, but they still stick to the blues template. Even at 20-plus minutes, “Strut Time” doesn’t trail off into practice-space jamming — wordy as the soloists may be, they continually offer skillful variations on the song’s theme.
In “Planet E”, Anderson’s more garrulous partners seem at first to overmatch him. Parker takes the first solo and delivers one of his most satisfying studio performances to date, drawing each phrase to a thrilling conclusion and tastefully interjecting prickly rock licks. The rhythm section works a filthy Afro-Latin groove, with Drake sounding like an entire Santana concert’s worth of percussionists; when drums and bass are left on their own, they transmit perfectly visceral vibrations — imagine the Earth’s tectonic plates grinding in complete harmony. When Anderson takes center stage, he plays much more subtly. He leaves a great deal of space between his brief utterances, and each note follows quite logically from its predecessor. But it becomes clear as he gathers steam that his presence is intended to be a calm and meditative one — he’s attempting to play as expressively as his bandmates while using a narrower set of tones, and in doing so he gives “Planet E” a point of focus, a well-defined subject.
The rest of From the River to the Ocean is decidedly more eclectic. “For Brother Thompson” opens with Drake chanting in Arabic, and the song’s peaks smack of Meditations-era Coltrane, breathless piano and drums tumbling over steady, slightly overblown sax melodies. The title track features each musician jamming over Drake’s frame drum, and the closer is a meditative duo between Anderson and Abrams, whose guimbri wraps tightly around the saxophonist’s terse, rapidly resolving statements.
Unlike so many East-meets-West modern jazz performances, these final songs don’t use striking juxtapositions to camouflage mediocre playing. Anderson remains a voice of workmanlike reserve in each piece’s context. Perhaps Tate wasn’t overlooking Anderson — the saxophonist isn’t as consistently surprising as he is just plain consistent.