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Fred Anderson - 21st Century Chase

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Artist: Fred Anderson

Album: 21st Century Chase

Label: Delmark

Review date: Sep. 14, 2009

On March 22, 2009, saxophonist Fred Anderson turned 80 years old. The legendary fixture of the Chicago jazz scene – which includes being a founding member of the AACM and owner of the longest-running jazz club in the city, the Velvet Lounge –celebrated by doing what he knows best: performing live. At such an advanced age, one might expect a more timid, or at least a less energetic evening of music. But despite Anderson’s increasingly frail-looking exterior, the man has the lungs of a 22-year-old non-smoker who runs five miles a day, every day, without batting an eye. He can blow a fiery 45 minutes on his horn without looking winded. Add kindred spirit and fellow tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan (himself, a sprightly 74) to the mix, and Delmark Records has captured yet another awe-inspiring live set from Anderson and company.

Last year, ethnomusicologist Aaron Berkowitz and psychology professor Daniel Ansari published an award-winning paper in NeuroImage detailing their studies of brain activity during musical improvisation. To put it succinctly, they found that melodic and rhythmic improvisation utilize the areas of the brain dedicated to motor activity planning, decision-making and, most surprisingly, understanding and speaking language. And like users of language, musicians have to work within learned patterns to communicate effectively – though obviously, such constraints can be manipulated for greater creativity. Great musical improvisers parallel the skill set of great orators (plus enhanced motor skills).

Anderson’s opening solo for 21st Century Chase does sound as if he is addressing the audience; it’s an introduction for what’s to come. His tenor’s robust tone sprints across a few quick melodic scales before shaking traditional constraints for the squeals and audible knots of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Albert Ayler. This is a language Jordan can understand. Before he even touches his saxophone, he mimics – or answers – the high-pitched peaks with yelps of his own. When he does pick up his horn, he responds to Anderson’s upper-register with deeper squawks along the same tonal plane. Their call-and-response builds to a hissing boil, the cue for the rest of the group to come crashing in. Barely two-minutes into the first half-hour set and Anderson has captured his audience like any great declaimer.

As Anderson and Jordan take turns addressing the crowd with their serpentine soliloquies, the rest of the band expertly grounds the exclamations. Traveled drummer Chad Taylor may have the toughest assignment. The saxophonists blow at a relentless pace for the duration of the hour-plus set, but Taylor is constantly underfoot with a barrage of gripping rhythms. Longtime Anderson compatriot Harrison Bankhead complements the rhythm section. With so much of the sound emitting from the two tenor saxophones, Bankhead loping bass gives the music a balancing sonorous voice. And finally, another Chicago jazz scene veteran, guitarist Jeff Parker, rounds out the quintet. Parker’s electric sounds out of place at times in such an acoustic environment, but his fractured, thorny mode of playing reflects Anderson’s own style. When interjected, it makes for a welcomed dynamic.

Through the two sections of “21st Century Chase” and the grooving dedication to drummer and fellow AACM-founding member, “Ode to Alvin Fielder,” the band performs in a round table manner. The floor is rotated between the musicians with different combinations of support from the non-soloing players. However presented, the message is clear. The spirit that enlivened Anderson and Jordan to spend their entire lives exploring the language of music is still as bright as it was a half-century prior. Their intertwining proclamations sound obsessively practiced and nuanced. To understand that they are improvised is almost mind-bending. The means of speaking the language may be alien to anyone without the highly developed brain activity discovered by Berkowitz and Ansari, but it is certainly understood.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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