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Having His Own Voice : An Interview With Fred Anderson

In conversation, Fred Anderson is modest and soft-spoken, but in performance those qualities swiftly disappear, replaced by descriptions such as bold and adventurous. Much has been written in recent years about Fred's sound—its distinctly melodic flavor of improvisation, the interchange between muscular swells and grooves and angular lyricism. Happily you can discover this for yourself on one of the dozen recordings under his name currently available. Before and after his short set in Los Angeles, as part of the All Tommorow's Parties festival curated by Sonic Youth, I had the privilege of speaking with Fred, as well as his band-mates drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Tatsu Aoki.

Here you are in LA, before a large audience, part of 4 day festival. Could you tell me what influences the way you play on any given night? The way you feel? Your band-mates? The room? The audience?

What I usually do is look at the audience or Hamid will look at the audience, and we'll just start playing, and I might let Hamid kind of inspire me and I'll follow him, and we'll just feel the audience out. It's important to get a sense of the audience, especially if you have an audience of people who've never heard this music at the level we play it.

What about playing for new audiences: One of your most recent recordings (Duets 2001 w/Robert Barry) is out on the wonderfully eclectic Thrill Jockey label, you've played with bands like Tortoise, this is the second ATP festival you're part of, do you enjoy crossing over to younger, different audiences?

It's nothing new, actually. I think it's good for me, but it's good for them too, because you've got to remember, they're changing too, and they want to hear something different, and once they hear it, they know. The music really speaks for itself, so never can underestimate your audience's ability to hear what you're putting out there.

Ten years ago, how many of your recordings were available?

(laughing) Not too many—

Now there are about 12—

Yes, it's coming along good. What's fortunate is that some of these recordings are from tapes I had, some like The Milwaukee Tapes or Dark Day in Verona, I had for 20 years or more. Back in those days, they would tape the music and give it to you. They don't do that now.

Maybe this isn't a fair question to ask you, but how do you explain this recent surge of interest in you, the deservedly higher profile you're getting?

Well, I don't know. You know, it really makes no difference what time it happens. I mean like 20 or 30 years ago, I had my own voice. And over the years, I think musicians knew about me, long before audiences did—they knew I had my own voice, so now maybe people are hearing it too. And maybe those musicians who knew about me kind of helped me get a little more exposure.

It's less than a week before your 73rd birthday. How has your playing evolved? Do you find yourself continually discovering new things?

(laughing) Well, I hoped I've learned something! I think I have, because I have always constantly studied, listening to other people, playing with other people, that's how I do it. You just have to keep taking chances, trying different things, different variations, finding little things. And owning a club has helped me stay in the game because I get a lot of young musicians coming through, and I can see how they're developing when they come back.

Have you enjoyed the role you've had as a mentor, is it important to your musicianship?

Maybe I am a mentor, but I don't look at it in that respect. All I want to do is keep the basic tradition going, so I do whatever I can to encourage that.

How important was Ornette Coleman to the kind of music you play? Did he open a lot of doors?

What Ornette did was approach the music in just a little different way, which is really what Louis Armstrong did, what Charlie Parker did. If you hear Ornette, you can tell he understood what Louis had done, and what Bird had done, you can hear the link, and then he made his contribution. But to me, it seems really basic, he just took the tradition to another level. It's what you try to do, and Ornette did it.

Can you speak about the idea of 'storytelling?'

Oh, yeah, that's it. All the music has a story, has our experiences. Like songs with lyrics, they tell about love or something, and you know by the lyrics what the story is. Years ago jazz musicians, if they played a pop song, they'd learn the lyrics too, so they could kind of play off the lyrics. So storytelling in [instrumental] music is just like that, and there all different kinds of ways to tell your stories.

You perform only your own compositions, while most jazz musicians do some of their own and some by others—Why is that?

Looking at it from my perspective, all of that has been done. My feeling is that I want to perform what I'm experiencing, so I do my own music. And that was the whole principle behind AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which Fred helped found), to write and perform our own music. Which really isn't anything new.

Nearly all of your recordings are made from live performances. Why do you prefer this?

I just prefer playing in front of people, a studio feels cold. And another thing: I don't try to get something down and have it tight, you know. Life is not like that, and I want to play like life, right? You can't perfect your feelings, you just try to discover them. That's what playing is about.

What is your take on the mainstream jazz scene, which many accuse of celebrating the past rather than creating the future, of looking back rather than looking forward. Is there a huge difference between what say, Wynton Marsalis is doing, and what you do?

I think we're on the same page, in one respect, we both work from the tradition. I mean I idolize Louis too, but the thing they got to remember is what Louis did was for his time, and you have to do something for your time, make a contribution to the tradition that is about your time. And I think Wynton has made a contribution, and he's out there playing and preaching and getting young people involved. But there's a lot of different ways it can be done, and it's good for young people to be exposed to it all, so they might like, you know, Cecil Taylor too. So you really can't say what should or shouldn't be.

Hamid Drake is one of the most sought-after drummers on the scene. You can find him on recordings with Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, Peter Brotzmann, Ken Vandermark, and William Parker. You can also find him on several recordings with Fred Anderson, with whom he's played for over 20 years.

How has playing with Fred over the years affected your playing? What have you taken from the experience of playing with Fred?

Well, I've probably been working with Fred since I was 18 or 19 years old, so as far as my jazz playing goes, Fred has been a foundational force for me. For example, one of my favorite drummers is Ed Blackwell, and Fred was the person who got me listening to him. And Fred was really my main teacher for improvising within the jazz realm, and he's opened me up to many things—how to listen in a certain way, how to play in an ensemble. And Fred's been a great friend too.

Can you talk about how your own music has evolved over the years you've played with him?

Fred is the type of individual who has always remained open, and I've been a person who's about investigating other musical traditions. So Fred has always been very open to that, very encouraging too. And he remains so to this day.

What's it like playing with Fred in a duet setting?

(laughing) It's, it's… you can be as open and exploratory as you want to be. Fred is such a powerful player, who generates so many ideas, so I always have a lot to work off of, and I try to feed him some too.

How do you explain this recent awakening of interest in Fred's music?

Well, I think Fred is one of the great tenor sax players of our time. But I don't know how to explain it, it's one of those great mysteries. I guess his time has come now, and it's beautiful to see because it's generational too. People of all ages are really catching on. It's the power of this music.

Tatsu Aoki is one of the most inventive and versatile bass players around. He is also president of Asian Improv Records as well as a professor of film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He's played with Fred Anderson since 1995.

What have you been able to take from the experience of playing with Fred? What has it meant for your own playing?

It's meant everything, beginning with life in general. It's taught me how to be a true musician—nobody plays like Fred, you can catch his playing on the radio and in two phrases, you know it's him. So playing with him has taught me how to create a distinct voice, how to incorporate different ideas, how to do the same thing in a different way.

Have you heard his music evolve over the years you've played with him?

Yes, he's always challenging himself, challenging the music too. And he's open to new things and young musicians, so that is great to see. He makes you want to challenge yourself.

Can you explain the recent awakening of interest in Fred's music?

I think people just didn't pay attention to what he was doing because there weren't a lot of recordings available. But now the time has been right. Since 1997, there has been a lot of interesting stuff happening in Chicago music, and suddenly people were paying attention, and they heard about this legend named Fred Anderson. And when I play with other people, they know now about Fred. You know, last month I had the occasion to play with Fred in duet for this silent film shown at the University of Chicago, and he played continuously, non-stop, for 90 minutes until the movie ended. Just amazing.