Of all the tenor saxophonists still making music today, Fred Andersonlike Pharoah Sanders
, Archie Shepp
and, at times, Wayne Shorter
still has the ability to get under the skin. Anderson's tone is so warm and rich and sensuous that when he sounds a note, it echoes under the body's largest organ, and not necessarily inside the head. Programmatic music tends to be cerebral, but not Fred Anderson's; this is because there is something quite extraordinarily urgent and heartfelt about the music that comes out of his big horn. On the trio record, Staying in the Game
, Anderson and his small group stick close to each other, read Anderson's charts brilliantly, and interplay with sublime erudition. The interplay between Anderson, bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Tim Daisy, suggests a symbiosis that once existed in such legendary bands as the classic John Coltrane
Quartet and powerful small ensembles that Charles Mingus
put together in the mid-to-late-'50s.
Therefore, it is highly unlikely that even difficult program music such as this will be played without a great deal of sympathy, understanding and inspiration. The long opening song, "Sunday Afternoon," is briskly introduced by Bankhead and Daisy before inviting a quiet, interweaving tenor conversation. The elegant harmonic report reflects a recent heady spiritual experience perhaps, and by the midsection of the song a full-blown discussion is on like a Sunday service. Anderson is assertive and almost preachy, but leading the deeply meditative ensemble through a contrapuntal section through to a final resolution of sorts. From an ostinato bass passage, interdicted by slashing drums, the elements of the tune are all bound together by Anderson's warm, reassuring tonal variations.
"The Elephant and the Bee" is another puckish, programmatic piece; and in some sense, makes oblique reference to Rimsky-Korsakov's famous opera "The Flight of the Bumblebee," albeit in a deeply reverential way. Here, while Daisy keeps the rhythmic heart of the song pulsating and sometimes fibrillating, Anderson's tenor plays the mastodon's character with aplomb. Bankhead switches between rapid-fire arco and irregular, almost maniacal, pizzicato phrases that fly across the bass. The song is maintained with brilliant energy and always innocuous humor.
The next three songs, "60 Degrees in November," "Wandering" and "Springing Water," are at least thematically connected. All traverse a rugged soundscape and depict the bleak nature of a planet spinning out of control. The music here is deliberately cold and dispassionate, almost as if each song was bereft of a soul in order to highlight the predicament of the earth that sustains us. Such impressionism is dark and exquisitely executed by tight ensemble work, relentlessly led by Anderson's energy, with Bankhead and Daisy firing on all cylinders right behind him.
"Changes and Bodies and Tones," closes this short set, and what an exquisitely tongue-in-cheek song with which to do so. Despite the percussive introductionAnderson has a right to surpriseand the high-register bass intro, this twists itself into a brilliant reconstruction of the classic standard, "Body and Soul."
It takes genius to make a record like this. In Fred Anderson's case, it also takes a great deal of integrity and courage, because it is never easy to allow the music to take over the inner voice of an artistthe one that comes from his very soul.