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Fred Anderson : The Rhythm Of Tradition

There are two subjects tenor player Fred Anderson loves to talk about: Rhythm and tradition. Not coincidentally, these are two things a listener to Fred's records is also inclined to talk about. Like most musicians, Fred is uninterested in labels, and ignores the disputes and divides that critics and fans (like myself) tend to get distracted by. He's an improviser who, rather than rejecting or exploding traditional jazz forms, sees himself elaborating upon them, inventing from within them, and creating music that can be heard as both an assimilation and evolution of the sound.

Perhaps that is most evident on his newest release, a wonderful duet with longtime friend and associate, drummer Hamid Drake. It's called Back Together Again (Thrill Jockey), and it may be the best offering by either artist to date. Symbiotic, adventurous, alive to the African rhythms of jazz and blues, every cut on it comes across as both a translation of the venerable and a pursuit of the new.

This is readily apparent on the opening number, a stand-out called "Leap Forward" that has Hamid laying down three different rhythms on frame drums while Fred absorbs them and blows out plumes of his own melodic voice that tighten and slacken, run and stroll, dig in and dig out. (A bonus disc of video footage allows you to actually see this!) This is Fred's third recording of duets with drummers (others include an early one with Steve McCall and his first Thrill Jockey release with former Sun Ra drummer Robert Barry), and it's clearly a setting that comes very natural to him. "Each one is different," he said. "Each one required different approaches."

Though Fred's music has often been labeled free, he scoffs at the term. "What I do comes from a lot of listening, and practicing, and composing. I'm still learning, all the time, but it's a really serious process. You got your chords and scales and you just keep playing with 'em and finding new things. I do that every day. Every single day. Nothing free about that."

There's a book he's put together and recently copyrighted called Exercises for the Creative Musician, which contains transcriptions of some of his compositions and exercises for practice and exploration. In it, you can find out more about the Rhythmic Concept that he and Hamid have developed through their decades of playing together. "Part of [the concept] is thinking about melody in terms of rhythm, not restricted to any particular groove, and go with the suggestions that come from it. Like when I'm listening to Hamid, I might hear something in the syncopation, and I'll try to play a melodic phrase that might go against it or might go with it. I might play fast or slow. There's a lot there in the rhythm that I can find tones for."

If rhythm is their idiom, then tradition is their forum. Not a surprise then that one of the songs on the new record is called "Know Your Advantage (The Great Tradition)". These are two artists proud to contribute to the rich history of jazz music, two who continue to take inspiration from what's come before them. "Hamid just turned me on to the new Jimmy Lyons box, and it's great to hear. I'm used to hearing Jimmy with Cecil, you know, and when I was overseas I used to see them too, but hearing Jimmy as a leader is a totally different thing. It's wonderful."

In T.S. Eliot's famous essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", he writes that "the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence". A lot of artists like to obscure their sources, afraid that they'll be 'found out' and be considered less original. Well, there is no anxiety of influence in Fred, and no ego beyond trying to make music that matters. In my conversations with him, he spoke as much about Bird as about anyone. He is also apt to talk about Louie and Duke, Prez, Hawk, and Jug. Some of their pictures adorn the walls of his small Chicago club, The Velvet Lounge, which has become well known as a kind of workshop and showplace for younger musicians.

"There was this young guy the other day who was all excited about this Charlie Parker record I had on at the club. He was saying how he'd never heard this before, and I looked at him and laughed. 'You've heard this a hundred times, I play it all the time.' See, it was just that he was finally hearing in it what he needed. It took him awhile, but he found it, and it sounded totally new to him. That's what it does."

On the new record, one hears shades of Coltrane, especially in the themes Fred lays down, many having the immediacy of announcement before he takes off on them. In his playing, there is always, like Trane, a bittersweet tone, simultaneously mournful and life-affirming, bluesy and spiritual. And his interplay with Hamid has reached a new level of communication that, because it is conducted in rhythm, enters our bodies as well as our minds. On every song, Hamid creates a kind of stirring undertow from which Fred tows out the chords and makes melody.

The more you listen to the record, the more you understand more of their concept. It originates from their own lives but is steeped in the larger human story. Because as we know, since the earliest primitive societies, rhythm has been associated with the unconscious, the hypnotic, the visionary, and the corporeal. It embodies and it disembodies. It states and it suggests.

This also becomes tangible when you actually see Fred play live, see the barrel-bodied man in the leopard-skin kufi, dipping and stooping, attending to the sound of the drums and the sound of his horn with his whole body. And at 75, it doesn't appear that he will sit or slow down any time soon.

"One of the great things about practicing and playing all the time is realizing how much you don't know", Fred told me. And after all those years, decades really, when there were no Fred Anderson records in print, there are now sixteen available. Fred's take on that: "It's good to be in the game, but now I want to stay in the game. I got more to do."