Fred Anderson and Chad Taylor: Polishing the Sound at UMass

Lyn Horton By

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The music was at once effective and whole, robust and satisfying, giving the listener license to come along for the musical ride.
Fred Anderson and Chad Taylor
Solos and Duos Concert Series
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
December 5, 2007

The function of superlatives is to thrust what is being described into a zone of excellence considered untouchable. Such hyperbolic words can paradoxically lose power, especially when used so much they become meaningless. Simply choosing the precise words that will give meaning to a musical experience, verbalizing the non-verbal, is hard enough without getting overwhelmed by superlatives. But the question remains: how can words elevate a musical experience to a place of excellence and at the same time even begin to represent accurately how such radiant beauty came into being? The words have to unfold like the music did.

Such becomes the challenge for writing about the performance of the duo of tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and drummer Chad Taylor, performing together in concert for the last of UMass's Solos and Duos Concert Series.

Anderson's opening approach to the sound was methodical, as he deliberately produced pure mid-range tenor tones fabricating the shape of one of his melodies. Suddenly, the saxophonist took a plunge to a surprisingly deep note that demarcated the introduction of the piece from the arpeggios that carried on an erudite and unwavering improvisation. He paused for brief, but significant, moments before resuming, his timing in itself enough to command open-eared attention. An ostinato passage ushered in Taylor, who used his hands on the snare and floor tom to initiate the rhythmic role of the drums. It was not long before the percussionist picked up his drumsticks, lightly clicked the hi-hat and proceeded to to carve out fast-paced stick-to-snare figures which grew into a crescendo as the tenor improvisation meanwhile became ever more full and rich. Anderson was determined to assemble and reassemble the phrasing of the tune in as many ways as he could.

Anderson supported Taylor as much as the drums supported the saxophone. The two players, in fact, could be perceived as one unit. As Taylor changed rhythms, so would Anderson, and vice versa. No one player led the team once the music started: they were musical equals engaged in one another's playing.

It was easy to follow Anderson because his process was exceptionally neat and clear-cut. Nothing interrupted him. He took his instrument through stunning arpeggios, then touched on tremolos that moved the music with different steps, constantly mindful of contrasting this motion with the sharply articulated deep bass note to which he often returned. This note rooted him into the melodic line so profoundly that he could assuredly venture further out, springing fully into a multiplicity of variations originating from the themes of his compositions. As his musical story unfolded, the tenor player found some sour notes and avenues that seemed strangely square and non-fluid, seemingly uncharacteristic of his playing yet in keeping with his inspired intention to explore his sonorous medium extensively. As he played in his classic bent-knee position, Anderson exuded so much confidence in his technical capacity within the range of the horn to which he has committed himself that agitating the high-low extremes of his instrument was unnecessary. His music flowed effortlessly, propelled by its own steadfast energy.

The music moved through such smooth transitions that one might easily imagine Anderson proposing to his drummer: "Let's do this...let's figure out a way to go at different speeds, starting from different places and doing different things and creating something that works... Because that is clearly how the music transpired at "this particular time," as Anderson might say. It wasn't a question of achieving synchrony, but rather of maximizing a uniquely intuitive interrelationship between two musicians.

When it was time for Taylor to solo, Anderson stood straight with his head bowed, as if to bless the momentary silence that was soon filled with skillfully placed percussiveness, until it was time for the tenor man to re-enter with a two-note ostinato figure and a reprise of the tune at hand.

For most of the concert, Taylor lowered his eyelids to a two-thirds closed position, suggestive of a meditative pose, maintaining this gaze as he played. There was no doubt that he was listening closely to his partner. At times, he fell into a call and response exchange that was less a predictable pattern than a freeform expression of joy with what was happening. When Anderson repeated a phrase, Taylor imitated it. When Anderson hammered the theme, Taylor's sticks followed but did not let go of making the rounds on the drums until his foot pounded the bass drum and his stick clipped the cymbal to break the continuity, eliciting a change in the music's direction. Often, Taylor scratched the surface of the prevailing musical atmosphere only to expand such subtle investigations into full-blown statements, similarly large in gesture and volume, not unlike the way Anderson developed his own solos.

Putting aside the sticks, Taylor worked his mallets dramatically, causing them to reverberate on the tom- toms. When he returned to the sticks, he often flattened the sound without deadening its forcefulness. His drumming could be described as tight, insistent, and incessant as he sculpted woody and dry materials into mutable sonic shapes matching the timbrel vicissitudes of Anderson's tenor.

The two-set concert lasted a full two hours with only one break. The duo played several of Anderson's compositions. The simplicity with which this pair of extraordinary musicians created the music so beautifully could easily have been missed were the music's story not so important to hear. Every spontaneous, melodic, rhythmic and cooperative aspect of the music was given substance. Not a thing was lacking. The music was at once effective and whole, robust and satisfying, giving the listener license to come along for the musical ride. Nothing could equal this performance, not even another concert by the same two musicians. Without question, there can never be anything like it again.

Photo Credit

Lyn Horton

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