Fred Anderson - 21st Century Chase (2009) (CD/DVD)


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By Pico

Birthday parties are almost always such fun events and nowadays, they all get captured on video. When someone marks their eightieth birthday, that's a real cause for celebration. And when the birthday boy celebrates it by ripping it up making some great music, that's just icing on the birthday cake. Delmark Records, a Chicago institution as the town's leading documenter of its pride and joy jazz and blues artists, shot some footage of Fred Anderson's 80th birthday bash at Chicago's fabled Velvet Lounge on March 22 of last year. Six months later, Delmark released this video on DVD (and the audio CD) as a testament to the continued vitality of this well-regarded tenor saxophonist.

Known as the “avant garde-father," Anderson has seen it all and done it all when it comes to jazz since World War II. And as very few born before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 can say, he's still doing it. Last year we marvelled at his non-stop blowing sessions that made up his prior release Staying In The Game, recorded when he was a spritely 79 years old. For those sessions, Anderson was doing most the lead work as he was backed by only bass and drums. For the 80th Birthday Bash, he is joined by a guitarist (Jeff Parker, of premier post-rock band Tortoise) and another saxophonist (Kidd Jordan). Harrison Bankhead at acoustic bass was carried over from the prior record and Chad Taylor, filling in at the last minute for the legendary Hamid Drake, manned the drums.

Choosing another tenor sax to share lead space with seems a puzzling move, but as Anderson acknowledged, southwest Louisiana native Jordan (who is 74 years young) is exceptional at hitting the high notes, while Anderson can easily constrast with the low ones. This, by the way, is how Anderson came up with the title “21st Century Chase," because “instead of playing solos together, we complement each other simultaneously," explained Anderson. More to the point, he, Jordan and Parker chased each other, feeding off one another as well as with Taylor and Bankhead. Listening and reacting to what the other musicians are playing isn't just lip service with these guys; it forms the very basis for the music.

If the simultaneous improvisation is the basis of the music, then the exceptional rapport between Anderson and Jordan is the soul of it. The two had played together for a number of years and it shows. The Chicago free jazz icon and respected New Orleans-based music educator became fast friends thanks to a mutual one, the late, great Eddie Harris. “He was the one who got us together" said Anderson, in revealing why both sported black Eddie Harris t-shirts for the show. The high-low combination they bring works like the jazz equivalent of the basketball alley-oop, and like the NBA show, adds pizazz to what would be stellar performances even if played individually.

Here's some highlights from each of the four songs Anderson & Co. played for his bash:

21st Century Chase Pt I: Starts with Jordan's shrieks and squeals, wailing for four minutes as the lone soloist until Anderson is coaxed to join the fray, first timidly, then becomes an equal partner in the blow-fest. Even in the most frenzied moments, these old cats look like they are having the time of their lives. At the twelve and a half minute mark, Jordan and Parker joust on the high end of the register, with Parker going into Derek Bailey mode while Kidd is shredding up the high notes. It creates this wonderfully strange noise. As this hot blowing session finally winds down toward its 36 minute running time, a quote of “Wade In The Water" is thrown in for good measure. By the end, Bankhead and Taylor are sweating; Anderson and Jordan are not.

21st Century Chase Pt II: A showcase for Bankhead, as he kicks off the song with a solemn, bowed bass performance. As Anderson joins in with sparse notes, Bankhead at times makes his bass sound like a horn as Anderson responds to his moves. Like most Fred Anderson songs, the song doesn't stay solemn for long and as the rest of the band joins in the building frenzy and the bow is put aside, I'm noticing that the top-hatted Bankhead can be a real beast on the double-bass, with his fingers going blurringly fast at times.

Ode To Alvin Fielder: Parker gets his turn in the spotlight, setting the tone playing solo at first playing clean notes in a style that's distinctly jazz but without a root. However, everything else about the song hollers “swing" and even when the white-haired saxophonists are blasting away to melodies that only they can hear, they remain firmly tethered to tradition. Just as he did for the first tune, Taylor switches over to a Latin/Cuban rhythm in the last couple of minutes of the song. The change up seems to revitalize the horn players and they respond by offering up a whole different set of ideas.

Gone But Not Forgotten: This is the DVD bonus track not found on the CD version. It's a bonus in the truest sense, since Henry Grimes sits in on bass for just this one tune. He leads off this selection with a plucked bass solo that is supple as an Olympic gymnast, easily validating his high standing among avant garde bassists. Bankhead moves over to cello and becomes an extra soloist, sliding neatly underneath Anderson's---and later, Jordan's---ruminations.

This DVD, like all DVD's, contains a few extras, The best of these is commentary by Anderson himself. He talks at length about his association with the other players in the band, especially Jordan, and other whack jazz luminaries over the years, as well as recent and upcoming shows. Like his sax playing, Anderson talks with coherence, enthusiasm and honesty. He doesn't put on airs or tries to be mysterious, Anderson is a gracious man who is rightly very satisfied with his career and where he is today. This guy sounds like he's got a lot more music ahead of him.

I'm no movie critic, but I thought a camera work was fine: nice, close up shots of musicians doing some amazing things at key moments, the expressions on their faces showing the enthusiasm and commitment to their trade and the restraint in using effects, which kept the focus squarely on the music at all times.

We're fortunate in that ten years into the 21 century, we still have jazz giants like Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson among us. When you hear Fred Anderson continue to play authoritatively the uninhibited side of jazz, it's an honor to witness that as he ushers in his ninth decade of life. At 80, Anderson gives lessons in advanced jazz to aspiring musicians a quarter of his age, and lessons in pursuing life with passion, vigor and positivity for the rest of us.

Purchase: Fred Anderson - 21st Century Chase

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