Anderson : The Rhythm Of Tradition
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.
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."