Sunday, July 26, 2009

CD Review: Fred Anderson

Engine is a New York based label that recently landed a distribution deal with ESP. A couple of their discs showed up with the latest batch of ESP items. On initial inspection, what's interesting about Engine is their econo packaging: a 10"X 5" piece of recycled chip board with the album cover artwork and info printed on it. (Very similar to what the early Screwgun discs were wrapped in, only a little more basic.) The disc itself stays in place courtesy of a piece of foam that's glued on good and tight. Unless you try to rip it out, or compulsively put the CD on and off, that little pad won't fall off. Smart packaging.

I just looked at the Engine site, hoping find some background info or label history. While I agree with much of what founder Steven Walcott says (I'm assuming it's him) about getting press, the tone is rather grouchy. I mean I know it's hard to get reviews when you're a small label and that most of the people who end up reading your website will be "with you," but damn, brother, do you have to an us v. them thing? Why not talk about how great your CDs are?

Oh, I guess that's where I come in.

Fred Anderson
Staying In the Game (Engine)

On the credits to this CD, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson "thanks God for keeping him here so he can play jazz." Whether or not you're a believer in a higher power, we should all give Fred an amen on that. In fact, let's hope the 80-year old Chicago veteran never dies because he still has an unending font of ideas to drawn on.

Staying in the Game is a trio session with bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Tim Daisy. Recorded last November in Chicago, these six tracks sound like spontaneous inventions. The 24-minute "Sunday Afternoon" opens the album, with Anderson working on a "Giant Steps"-like idea, while his conspirators play a walking waltz underneath. The dynamic level doesn't vary a whole lot, which means it stays at a similar volume throughout the duration. Even when things get free, the trio doesn't resort to crazy blowing. But the way Anderson brings out a series of melodic tricks -rather than going for the easy wail, for instance - will win over discerning listeners.

"The Elephant and the Bee" describes the combination of tenor and bass in duet, although it's hard to tell which instrument represents which creature. Bankhead's rich bowing, with its scraping harmonics, could symbolize the lumbering elephant. Then again, his fleet plucking moves like a bee too. Anderson seems to play on a parallel line, but he's clearly in tune with the bassist's movement. As the track ends, one of them - probably Bankhead since he finishes last - is heard marveling at the performance, out of breath, and it's easy to agree with the sentiment.

In "Springing Water," Daisy gets his chance to play alone with Anderson. Together they create a sound that evokes the track's title, ebbing and flowing in a stream of ideas. Then the album climaxes with "Changes and Bodies and Tones" full of rolling cymbals, arco bass (is he using two bows?) and tenor sax lines that ring out like deep thoughts. It's off-the-cuff and loose but it's also a textbook example of how this music should sound.

Check it out at

Next up, Warren Smith's Composers Workshop Ensemble - Old New Borrowed Blues (also on Engine).

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