Fred Anderson, The Velvet Trio
Sons d'Hiver Festival
Espace Culturel Andre Malraux, Le Kremlin-Bic'tre
February 1, 2008
Velvet: a smooth surface; silky. Dictionary definitions hint at just some of the attributes of the Velvet Trio. Of course the name originates not as a descriptor but from Chicago tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson's fabled Velvet Lounge, where he has spent many fertile hours in the company of drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead. It's fitting that this combination has a group moniker because Anderson is not always the lead player in what is clearly a cooperative effort.
Flying in from the Windy City the group opened the first night of the annual Sons d'Hiver Festival in the Paris suburb of Le Kremlin-Bic'tre. Having negotiated a scare when we realized that the Sons d'Hiver organizers had lost our reservation for what proved a sold-out event, only to be reprieved through the kindness of the theatre manager, we finally settled into our seats in the packed auditorium. You know what to expect from the 78-year-old Anderson: favorite middle-register phrases, minted anew into an updated take on the free jazz tradition. The truth and the abstract blues. Where surprise and pleasure came was in just how little was played by rote. In five pieces over the course of 65 minutes the trio extemporized a wonderful display of fluid interplay, integrating a variety of genres into a seamless whole.
Drake's nimble fingers tattooed his frame drum to conjure a middle Eastern ambience, accentuated by Bankhead's brooding cello bowing, before adding more than a whiff of ritual with a Sufi chant. Anderson stood listening, horn at his lips, until he chose to embroider light phrases into the cantering rhythm. Upper register forays by the cello were echoed by whinnies from the tenor, as the saxophonist began to weave his magic into the trance.
Though Drake moved behind his drum kit for the remainder of the set, this didn't preclude more exotica. Case in point was one gorgeous otherworldly passage of arco bass intertwined with Anderson's tenor. Bankhead was in fine form throughout, like a more melodic William Parker, sometimes locking onto a riff, but then effortlessly morphing between grooves in tandem with Drake. A Bankhead solo started the next piece, even before the applause had died, with a Spanish-tinged pizzicato, then singing in unison with his own lines. Deep resonant plucks were followed by more flamenco strumming before a shift to arco enticed Anderson to join and they were off again.
Drake was as phenomenal as ever, consummately shifting between meters, with a constant pulse that, while maintained on hi hat, was a continuously shifting commentary carried on simultaneously all over the drum kit. At times it seemed that the other two were framing a percussion concerto, such was Drake's mastery.
The fourth piece summed up the group approach in glorious style. A repeated motif from Anderson prompted flurries of stop/start activity from Bankhead and Drake. Bankhead riffed, Anderson preached and Drake slipped into a funky hand-clapping rhythm, but still they toyed with the timeand the audience's expectationsgetting down and dirty, then stopping. Anderson breathed "aah," and after an interminable pause Drake started up again to everyone's general delight. A fierce coda developed with Anderson's trills building over frantic strumming from Bankhead before quieting for a beautiful conclusion followed by rapturous applause.
A smooth surface perhaps, but ultimately revealing great depths. In spite of the sustained audience entreaties there was to be no encore. The three musicians returned to the stage to thank the audience, but the time demands of the rest of the program allowed for no further delights.
The second set was a sprawling offering by Ernest Dawkins' Chicago 12, inspired by the story of young black Chicagoan, Emmett Till, who was abducted, mutilated and murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman, while on a visit to Mississippi in 1955. The driving ensemble choruses spiced by lengthy solo explorations by the impassioned alto saxophone of Greg Ward, the astonishing ululations of vocalist Dee Alexander, the rumbustious baritone saxophone of Aaron Getsug, and the animated recitation of poet Khari B kept the crowd enthralled for over two hours.