Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson is one of the most surprising success stories of the 1990s. Originally emerging as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in the mid-1960s, he played with members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, among others. He recorded a few times between the late 1960s and early 1970s, and then effectively disappeared around 1980, preferring to run a bar full time. Fifteen years later, Anderson was rediscovered by the young school of free-jazz players in his hometown, particularly saxophonist Ken Vandermark (winner of a 2000 MacArthur fellowship). Fred had never stopped playing, but he hadn’t recorded in years. That changed quickly. Since about 1996, he’s released close to a dozen albums on Chicago labels Okka Disk, Thrill Jockey, and now Atavistic (this one as part of that label’s Unheard Music reissue series), and he’s become something of a hometown hero. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
The first disc of this two-CD set, Dark Day, is a reissue of an album released on the tiny European label Message Records in 1980, documenting an Anderson concert at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The second disc, Live In Verona, captures another, equally impressive but previously unreleased, gig by the same band. Dark Day contains four songs; Live In Verona, three. The band stretches out quite a bit on each disc; on Disc Two, the second number lasts over a half-hour, and the third nearly twenty-five minutes.
The unique aspect of Anderson’s working quartet, on these CDs, is the way they infuse bluesy swing with a variety of ethnic polyrhythms, without any of it seeming contrived or less than seamless. Drummer Hamid Drake, with whom Anderson has been working since the late 1970s, really deserves co-billing here; it’s the drum-saxophone interaction that makes the album. Drake’s one of the most powerful, fascinating drummers in current jazz. His work is as informed by reggae and Indian music as by the blues, and when he turns from the traps to the tablas, it’s often a signal that the music is about to downshift into a meditative, slightly mournful gear.
Anderson’s tone isn’t as brutish as some other current free players. His solos never have the ponderous weight of outings by David Ware, or the manic, explosive feel of Charles Gayle‘s rants. Rather, he seems to hold back on screams and overblowing, preferring to weave long, complex melodic strands, in the manner of earlier players like Lester Young or Dexter Gordon. This allows him to float above the rhythm section, instead of writhing in the middle of a sonic hurricane. Anderson’s music has a lightness not only of tone but of spirit. His albums are energizing; the listener comes away feeling better than before.
One of the best ways to understand the improvisational heart of jazz is to listen to multiple versions of the same piece, particularly when played by its composer. This set is bookended by two versions of Anderson’s signature tune, "Dark Day." A long, sinuous melody line, in the vein of Ornette Coleman’s ballads, it’s a trance-inducing piece which never quite erupts into full-on swing. The version which opens Disc One is about fifteen minutes long, and begins with throbbing bass work by Steven Palmore. The version which ends Disc Two is much more of an ensemble effort, rather than the series of solos that make up the first reading. Both are beautiful, but in entirely different ways. Fred Anderson is a player who has long deserved a wider audience–it’s a good thing that albums like this, as well as the new material he’s been recording in the past five or six years, have made it to market during his lifetime.