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Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake's association goes back three decades. What was once a mentor/prodigy relationship is now a dynamic partnership with chemistry similar to Coltrane's late-career collaboration with Rashied Ali. Back Together Again (Thrill Jockey, 2004) was an intimate sonic conversation between two old friends; for From the River to the Ocean, the septuagenarian club owner and globetrotting percussionist pull together some of Chicago's finest players, and the result is as exploratory and energizing as anything you'll hear this year.
"Planet E isn't a title as much as it is a destination, because the opening track's turbulent beginning feels like the band is building up thrust to lift you up through the atmosphere and out into space. Anderson's fiery tenor exhorts the rhythm section, and vice versa. When the band finally swings into the melody and Jeff Parker launches his first weapons-grade solo, the atmosphere is both positive and volatile, and the trust that links this quintet is as thick as a steel cable. You don't know what's going to happen next, but it's a given that whatever does happen is going to be seriously intense.
"Strut Time is a hard-core blues that would have been a perfect set closer, except using it as the last track would have detracted from the Eastern-influenced music that makes up the rest of the disc. As it stands, "Strut Time is down and dirty and phenomenally cool, with the call-and-answer between Anderson's tenor and Harrison Bankhead's bowing cello raising the tune above the norm.
Bankhead is the date's utility infielder: His ominous piano on "For Brother Thompson brings a dark side to the prayerful tribute to the late trumpeter Malachi Thompson, and Bankhead teams with Josh Abrams to form a twin-bass attack that expands on Ornette Coleman's experiments on Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar, 2006). For the last two tracks, Abrams moves to guimbria Moroccan three-string acoustic bass with a resonant property that supports Drake's frame drum on the title track. The guimbri also acts as a tightly tuned drum on the primal closer, "Sakti/Shiva, a spiritual duet that wears Drake's creative fingerprint, even if he doesn't play on the tune.
John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders drive Anderson's tenor like twin jet engines. While Anderson doesn't have the power of his influences, he does have a growling, fervent quality that demands your attention, even in quiet moments like the hypnotic repeating figure at the end of "Sakti/Shiva. Although Drake has reportedly trimmed back his arsenal, he seems to incorporate every percussion instrument he owns onto this disc, taking the energy from quiet to crackling and everywhere in between. His Arabic chants on "Thompson and the title track combine with Anderson's mesmerizing sound to make both pieces a call to the faithful.
This disc comes from the school that's dedicated to freeing your mind, not just educating it. From the River to the Ocean updates a truism: It's the journey and the destination.
Track Listing: Planet E; Strut Time; For Brother Thompson; From the River to the Ocean; Sakti/Shiva.
Personnel: Fred Anderson: tenor sax; Hamid Drake: drums and percussion (1, 2, 3), chants (3, 4), frame drum (4); Jeff Parker; guitar (1, 2, 4); Harrison Bankhead: cello (2), piano (3), bass (1, 4); Josh Abrams: bass (1, 2, 3), guimbri (4, 5).