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.

AAJ: Hopefully this will be an ongoing project, because As you Like is such a great record.

JA: Thank you; we hope the same. Yeah, we'll do more.

BANN; From left: Adam Nussbaum, Seamus Blake, Jay Anderson, Oz Noy

AAJ: "Guinevere" is a powerful song, but the interpretation on this album takes the song somewhere really quite special. It raises the question why more pop tunes of the modern era haven't entered the jazz canon. Do you have a theory on that?

JA: That's interesting. Certainly it's been done. I remember Oscar Peterson recorded "Satisfaction" 35 years ago. Jazz players were used to certain elements, whether it's the melody, the format for improvisation or the harmonic content of the song, so it was kind of awkward for a while. I think people have done it with varying degrees of success.

AAJ: Do you think the fact that the standards from the Great American Songbook have prevailed for so long and that relatively few more modern pop tunes are in the jazz repertory points to a fundamental conservatism in mainstream jazz?

JA: I hope that jazz will never shake itself of the Great American Songbook because there's something universal about those tunes. One of the beautiful aspects of that music is that you could be almost anywhere in the world, and can make music immediately. Pop music is less harmonically driven today. The way most jazz musicians learn the music, you need something harmonically to grab onto.

AAJ: One standard on As You Like is the Jerome Kern classic "All the Things You Are," and there's a quite different sounding version of it on another terrific recording, Something Sentimental (Kind Of Blue Records, 2009) with saxophonist Dave Liebman, guitarist John Abercrombie and Adam Nussbaum. Is it difficult to take a song you've played perhaps hundreds of times and then play it in a very different way?

JA: Not at all. I have never ever grown tired of playing "All the Things You Are" or tunes like it because, fortunately, I'm usually playing it with great players. You think of one of the most famous recordings in jazz, Sonny Meets Hawk (RCA Victor, 1963), with Paul Bley's solo on "All the Things You Are," which has been seen as a pivotal moment in the development of the linear jazz language. I've played with Paul many times and played standards with him, and it's a pleasure. I've played "All the Things You Are" with Frank Kimbrough, and Vic Juris has a version on A Second Look (Mel Bay Records, 2005) where it's a slow, sensuous bossa nova—the melody is intact but harmonically it is completely de- and reconstructed. It's a pleasure to play.

AAJ: Something Sentimental sounds like it was an enjoyable session.

JA: When you're playing with Adam, John Abercrombie and Dave Liebman, it's kind of close your eyes and go. The [Another Nuttree] session was fairly democratic. They were all tunes we knew, and we recorded the project in a day. It was a very interesting record. Most listeners are familiar with Dave Liebman and John Abercrombie as composers, leaders and as improvisers. I think it's really interesting to hear them play on those tunes. It really puts their approach to improvisation in a context you can relate to: "Ah, so this how John Abercrombie would play 'All the Things you Are.'" The joy of discovery that John, Lieb and Adam brought to this material was absolutely fantastic. I mixed, mastered and edited the record, and could really sit there and listen to what they were playing; and although these tunes have been played thousands of times, they sounded as fresh as anything. That's the beauty of these standards.

AAJ: Coming back to As You Like, two of your tunes, "Will Call" and the beautiful "At Sundown" appear. Is that the first time you've dusted down these tunes since you recorded them on your two solo albums or have you played these tunes throughout the years?

JA: I did my own records in the early/mid '90s, and then since then I've been so busy as a sideman, my own projects haven't been a priority. Certainly there are people who are sidemen and find/make the time to lead their own projects. I have recorded "Will Call" on projects by Vic Juris and [trombonist] Mike Fahn. We were all bringing material to the table, and those tunes were my contribution. Oz with his bottleneck on "At Sundown" is just brilliant.

AAJ: His playing really transforms what was already a very beautiful tune; he takes it to somewhere special. It sounds like he's playing Hawaiian guitar.

JA: [Laughs.] It was just his regular guitar with a bottleneck. When we ran through the head, Oz said immediately: "Oh, we've got to do this tune." He had this little glimmer in his eye, and then he whipped out the bottleneck. I wrote the tune 20 years ago, and it was like, "Ah, that's what I've been waiting for 20 years to hear!" [Laughs.] He really got it.

AAJ: As you were saying before, a new combination of musicians can take an old tune, and if the tune's a good one they can make it sound freshly minted.

JA: Definitely. Like the Paul Bley tune I mentioned before—it's just a send-off for a journey of exploration. Just because a tune is counted off one way doesn't mean it's going to end up that way. One night Adam will start, or I'll start, or we'll start with a collective group improvisation and work our way into the tune, not really knowing how or when it's going to arrive or where it's going to go. It's a privilege to play with like-minded musicians where there's that kind of trust. It's always an adventure.



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