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I met Fred Anderson once. I was in Chicago to profile the metal band Disturbed (it was 2002; record labels still flew journalists places to write articles), and I decided that while I was in town, I should visit Anderson’s bar, the Velvet Lounge, which he’d been running since 1983 and which was a crucial venue for avant-garde jazz and experimental music in the city. I took a cab from my hotel to what seemed like a desolate stretch of the night city and walked into a small, run-down but welcoming bar. There was a tight little stage in the back of the room, with a few small tables and chairs set up facing it. I hung out for an hour or so, had brief but friendly conversations with Anderson and drummer Chad Taylor, who was at the bar, and listened to the music, when it started, with a small audience. Eventually I bought a T-shirt I don’t have any more and a copy of Anderson’s CD The Missing Link, and went back to the hotel.
Anderson, who died in 2010, was a fascinating figure. Though he was an early member of the AACM, appearing on the late Joseph Jarman‘s Song For and As If It Were the Seasons, he didn’t record as a leader until 1978, when he made Another Place for the Moers Music label with trumpeter Billy Brimfield, trombonist George Lewis, bassist Brian Smith, and Drake, then calling himself Hank, on drums. He recorded Dark Day the following year, with Brimfield, Drake, and bassist Steven Palmore. The Missing Link was also recorded in 1979, with Drake, bassist Larry Hayrod, and percussionist Adam Rudolph, but it wasn’t released until 1984. And after that, nobody heard from him for 12 years, until the 1996 release of Birdhouse on the Okka Disk label. He focused on running his bar, and providing a stage for other players.
Between 1996 and his death, though, Anderson was in a creative frenzy. He recorded 25 albums in 15 years (there have also been two posthumous live releases), and guested on eight more by Misha Mengelberg, Matana Roberts, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams, among others. Though he had a pool of regular collaborators, Hamid Drake first among them, he was open to all kinds of playing situations, and seemed to particularly enjoy passing his knowledge on to younger musicians. He was compelling to watch, too. He performed bent at the waist, the horn’s keys at a level with his knees; my back hurts just looking at video of the guy onstage. I have no idea how he did that for decades.
The thing about Anderson, though, is that a little goes a relatively long way. Only a few of his dozens of albums are genuine keepers, because although he was willing to work with lots of people, he always sounded the same, no matter where he was. His tone was dark and slightly fuzzy at the edges, with plenty of booming low notes, and he had a little bag of favorite licks he’d pull from on almost every track; you can hear the exact same phrases recur from tune to tune, from album to album. His performances tended to run long, passing the ten-minute mark more often than not and sometimes (as on “Sunday Afternoon” from one of his final albums, 2009’s Staying in the Game) lasting nearly a half hour. So it was often up to his partners to do the creative heavy lifting, making him sound interesting in context. The four albums below are the best entry points to his catalog. If after that you find that you need more, well, there’s plenty around.
Dark Day/Live in Verona (Atavistic, 2001): This double CD reissues a 1979 live release and pairs it with a second disc of previously unheard material by the same group: Anderson on tenor, Billy Brimfield on trumpet, Steven Palmore on bass, and Hamid Drake on drums. It features versions of three of his best known compositions — “Three On Two,” “The Bull,” and the title piece. The shortest track on the set is “Saxoon,” at 11:36; the longest is a 31:46 version of “Three On Two.” Brimfield is an excellent foil for Anderson, and Palmore and Drake shift between mournful moods and endless, tribal-trance grooves, never letting the energy level flag even as the performances become marathons. This set is out of print, but you can find it if you try.
Fred Anderson/DKV Trio (Okka Disk, 1997): The DKV Trio — Drake on drums, Kent Kessler on bass, and Ken Vandermark on reeds — are still going today, but they were a new unit when they teamed up with Anderson for this studio date, featuring six of his compositions in surprisingly concise versions: only two tracks pass the ten-minute mark. Vandermark is a forceful player more willing to go full-on free blare than Anderson, so the two complement each other well. His gentle side comes out on a version of “Dark Day” where he switches to bass clarinet, providing a mellow anchoring voice as the saxophonist meanders around. Their commingled voices transform the familiar piece into something new and vital. It’s available on Bandcamp.
Two Days in April: (Eremite, 2001): A document of two complete 1999 concerts featuring New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan, bassist William Parker, and Drake on drums, this is one of the most intense items in Anderson’s catalog. A lot of that fierceness comes from Jordan, an unfettered and squalling player who verges on Charles Gayle territory at times. But he inspires Anderson to go up and out, and the seven untitled improvisations feature many long passages where the two men are going at each other, head to head, in full cry, as Parker and Drake — who would subsequently become one of the 21st century’s great jazz rhythm teams — surge and pulse like a gigantic, two-person circulatory system. It’s out of print in physical form, but you can get it on Bandcamp.
From the River to the Ocean (Thrill Jockey, 2007): This album was co-billed to Anderson and Drake, and it features a terrific supporting cast of Chicago improvisers. Jeff Parker is on guitar; Harrison Bankhead plays bass, cello, and piano; and Joshua Abrams plays bass and guimbri. The music has a kind of infinite groove with spiritual overtones occasionally reminiscent of early ’70s Pharoah Sanders, particularly when Drake chants in Arabic on “For Brother Thompson” (a dedication to trumpeter Malachi Thompson, who died in 2006) and Anderson plays long, crying phrases over Bankhead’s piano. Anderson didn’t play with a pianist often enough, at least not on his own records; his endless searching vamps are great, but they gain a lot from the heavy chordal anchor a piano can provide. The nearly 14-minute title track, featuring an extended Bankhead cello solo over chopping guitar chords from Parker and hand percussion from Drake, is one of the most fascinating tracks in Anderson’s whole discography. This album is a genuine treasure, but while Thrill Jockey is on Bandcamp, From the River to the Ocean isn’t, for some reason, so you’ll have to find a CD copy somewhere. (It’s still in print.)