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Jay Anderson: Driving the Bus

Jay Anderson: Driving the Bus
Ian Patterson By

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I remember one time coming off the road with Joe Sample, getting on a plane, and going straight to a record date with Paul Bley--two completely opposite ends of the spectrum, but you just focus on the music, the joy, and the task at hand.
The term "sideman" really doesn't do justice to bassist Jay Anderson, as his beautifully melodic, lyrical lines and in-the-pocket-grooves lift and shape any music that he is a part of. And while the term "journeyman" holds some truth—Anderson has played with a huge number of people—one glance at his extensive discography reveals that most of the session leaders who have sought out Anderson's rich, warm tone have gone back to him time and time again. Anderson has been the first-call bassist on recordings and on tour for saxophonists Bob Belden and Bob Mintzer, guitarist Vic Juris, and pianists Maria Schneider, Joe Sample, Paul Bley and Lynne Arriale among others.

Anderson cut his teeth in the mid '70s in the band of reed player and band leader Woody Herman, gaining invaluable experience during a mammoth nine- month tour across the States. That old-school, apprentice-style experience in Herman's band was a rapid learning curve for Anderson, as he had to keep pace with young saxophonist Joe Lovano every night. After leaving Herman's band, Anderson went on to spend two years playing with another jazz legend, singer/pianist Carmen McRae. So by the time Anderson made the move from California to New York in the early '80s, he was extremely well prepared for the musical challenges that lay ahead.

His first gig—and his ticket to the Big Apple—was with two notable figures from the bebop era, trumpeter Red Rodney and reed player Ira Sullivan, both of whom had played with alto legend Charlie Parker. Anderson, it seems, has always kept fine musical company. Whether playing in the big bands of pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler or drummer Mel Lewis, in the trios of pianists Paul Bley or Phil Markowitz, or playing in the quartets of tenor saxophonist Michael Brecker or harmonica player Toots Thielemans, Anderson's deep, soulful sound colors the music and drives it in a way that great bass players like Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Dave Holland and Charlie Haden are able to.

For Anderson, no musical setting is beneath him, and he brings the same serious intent whether playing a jingle or plying the groove for Celine Dion; Anderson's job, wherever he finds himself, is to sound as good as he can. The challenge of musical diversity stimulates Anderson, and he has also recorded with artists as diverse as singers Tom Waits and Chaka Khan. Currently, Anderson is touring with BANN, a co- op group consisting of guitarist Oz Noy, saxophonist Seamus Blake and long-standing musical colleague, drummer Adam Nussbaum. BANN's As You Like (Jazz Eyes, 2011) was recorded at Anderson's New Mountain studio In New Paltz, and captures the excitement and chemistry of this outstanding quartet. With dates for BANN scheduled through 2011 and 2012, recording work with Maria Schneider coming up and plenty more live work in the pipeline, it is a wonder that Anderson finds the time to hold down a bass professorship at the Manhattan School of Music.

Anderson's open-minded approach to music, his wealth of experience and his humility, mark him out as something much more than just a sideman.

All About Jazz: Jay, you've been touring with drummer Adam Nussbaum, guitarist Oz Noy and saxophonist Seamus Blake in support of As You Like. this is a leaderless co-op group, is that right?

Jay Anderson: It's the brainchild of Adam Nussbaum, but it's a democratic endeavor. Adam is an old friend; we've played in at least 20 bands together over the years. I didn't know Oz although I knew of him; he's kind of the wild card in the group. Seamus is as good as it gets on saxophone. I hadn't played with him before either, but these disparate spirits came together, and it just worked. We all write and all brought something to the table. Oz does some very unique treatments of standards. Most of the people who know Oz know him as a fusion guitarist, but in reality he's a very gifted jazz player. His sound and approach are unique and draw from his rock/fusion background, but his lines and vocabulary are deeply rooted in the jazz continuum. I think it works because he bridges the gap between all of us. He's a master with effects, and contributes enormously to the mood and atmosphere of the music.

AAJ: It's a great sounding record—full of energy. How has it translated live on the stage?

JA: It's been fantastic. With this band we do everything from originals, to standards and covers. If I bring in a cover tune, I do very little arranging. I just transcribe the tunes as accurately as I can, with a vague idea of how we can bring it to life. Adam came up with a pop tune from our youth, "Guinevere" by David Crosby, and I transcribed it. I gave it to Oz and said: "Why don't you try this?" and it was off to the races. Every night it's different and very spontaneous.

I remember one night we were playing a [pianist] Paul Bley tune called "Fig Foot." It's a theme that's just a springboard for some freedom, whether you play it slow, fast or funky. We were in the middle of it, and I whispered to Seamus: "Let's play (my tune) "Will Call," and we went into that and then back to the original tune. It's great when you can play in a band where there are so many options and so much trust. It's a pleasure. We've really only scratched the surface of the potential of this group.

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