Fred Anderson: Customizing Conviction
Younger musicians who have worked with Anderson have nothing but admiration and affection for him. He opens his heart and mind to encourage and guide them in honing the music that is so much as part of who they are and how they impact the world. How deeply Anderson reaches his younger followers and collaborators will make certain that the creative tradition of the music that he holds dear, and has upheld with conviction, will be transferred to more practitioners. His legacy will not go unnoticed.
One of the musicians whom Anderson took under his wing is bassist Harrison Bankhead. He met Anderson through drummer and cover art artist Emilio Cruz in Chicago in 1980. Anderson had already heard Bankhead on a recording and was interested in his playing. After Anderson took over the Velvet, he wanted to secure musicians for the club. He chose Bankhead to become a regular at the Velvet in 1982.
Bankhead has described Anderson's approach to music as viable, absorptive of other forms, yet still remaining itself. In other words, Anderson, himself, "is a living form.
Although Bankhead has a background as an R&B electric bassist and is also classically trained as a cellist, he feels that he has received seminal guidance from Anderson that he would not have received anywhere else. He has been inspired to find his own voice, in how the bass expands the sound that would normally be produced by piano, in a group format. "You have to be able to keep moving and modulate...go into different keys...develop on the bandstand. His mantra is: "Develop...develop...develop.
Anderson has imparted to Bankhead the value of molding his self-esteem, to empower himself in order to vitalize the musical traditions of the African Diaspora that must not be ignored. That is: it is fine to be a dreamer, but always remember to stay grounded.
Thirty-four year-old drummer Chad Taylor met Anderson in the mid-1990s through bassist Josh Abrams, who was organizing a session at a recording studio where the musicians wound up getting to know each other essentially by jamming together. Taylor has worked with Anderson on and off in Chicago, but mostly at European music festivals, in quartet and trio settings. Anderson calls Taylor "a remarkable drummer...he stays right there like a rock.... Anderson "can weave in and out of his rhythm... [We] never get in each other's way.
Anderson has had a strong influence on Taylor. For Taylor, Anderson "opens the context...for where a tune will go. Taylor is "encouraged to experiment in relation to what Fred does...Fred's sense of time is so strong... [when] he starts the tempo, [he] pulls everyone in. Taylor "has never played with anyone ...who has that sense of time. Anderson sets up tensions in the phrasing by always changing the downbeat. The drummer describes it as a matter of "where one is...your one and his one are not the same... This creates a tension in the phrasing between the two players that changes the "music space...dissolves its linearity...Sounds cool.
Taylor has learned from Anderson "to do [his] own thing and persevere at what [he is] doing and not give up. Within the context of talking about the music as a whole, Taylor says that "Fred's message is unique, has been developed over forty years, and does not require the free label that is automatically slapped onto the music, because no one understands it.
In 1996, Anderson recorded with reedman Ken Vandermark's group, the DKV trio. According to Vandermark, "the idea was to document a number of Fred's compositions, some which may not have been on record or were on albums long out of print. "They're such fantastic tunes! proclaims Vandermark.
At this session, Anderson reflects that Vandermark "embraced his compositions... [The two of them] found common ground... Ken was doing things he had never done before and had the freedom to play 'himself' because "You never take a guy out of his comfort zone.
As someone who has striven for the establishing the presence of creative improvised music worldwide, forty-two year-old Vandermark has a great deal to say about how Anderson has influenced him. "Through his resolve to be an individual and an artist during a time period when neither carries enough weight in mainstream society, Anderson provides a model for generations to come.
Vandermark measures Anderson's impact not only in terms of his recordings and performances, but also in terms of "his ongoing effort to provide performance spaces and opportunities for the musicians in Chicago, upcoming and established, and to give "the jazz scene in this city a chance to develop its own set of ideas. In both instances, it is the original thinking that Fred has built, both through his own work and by giving other players circumstances to shape their art that will last well into the next decades of this millennium.
And finally, drummer Hamid Drake, the eldest of all Anderson's younger colleagues, has had a special relationship with Anderson. They both came to the Chicago area from Monroe, Louisiana, and at one point Drake's and Anderson's families all lived together in the same house in Evanston. The two musicians have been talking to each other long before they started conversing in musical terms. Drake quickly became a regular performer at the Velvet.
Anderson speaks fondly of Drake, to whom he feels as close as he would a son. When they play together, Anderson exuberantly explains: "We are on the same page... we listen to each other and communicate. They trust each other so implicitly that their process of making music simply flows without any concerns of yielding one to the other.
Drake provides so much rhythmic territory to navigate that Anderson can play complementarily to it or weave through it. In turn, Drake can do the same with Anderson. They have no dearth of capacity for interaction. Anderson recounts that Drake has challenged him by bringing new processes to the forefront. One presented itself in the studio recording Back Together Again (Thrill Jockey, 2004), where Drake made three separate tracks playing an African drum on each, combined them to make one and then asked Anderson to play on top of it. On that same recording, the percussionist asked Anderson to play while Drake was singing. This new sound vocabulary kindled Anderson's creative spirit.
At the 2007 Vision Festival, the Anderson-Drake-Bankhead trio performed on the Friday evening line-up. Following its performance, Drake was sitting down, his frame drum in hand. Anderson stood next to him, poised to play a duet with his close friend. But Drake paused for a moment to preface the performance with these words: "I want to pay tribute to Fred while he is still here because he is the reason many of us are here today" [referring to the numerous Chicagoans who played their music at the Festival and began at the Velvet Lounge]. Indeed. That Fred Anderson has remained committed to his purpose is one example of how persistence and stamina has penetrated an art that affects us all and is ingrained in our history as a country.