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Music Review: Fred Anderson – 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash At The Velvet Lounge

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Jazz musicians must really love what they do. How else can you explain spending a lifetime playing music and rarely receiving the recognition your talent deserves.

Occasionally, for one reason or another, a jazz musician's name will somehow manage to come to the attention of more than just those who are aficionados of the genre, but unfortunately it's not usually until after their dead, which means that some of the most innovative and brilliant musicians of our generation are working in relative obscurity and creating music that the majority of us will never hear. Unfortunately we're the ones who are the real losers, because we miss out on some truly awe inspiring music.

Now it's true that the strain of jazz known as avant-garde can be a little inaccessible at times to some people, but that's primarily because they have very little exposure to it. Like any art form, to properly appreciate it one needs to have an understanding of what's going on, and the only way that can be achieved is by listening to it. Out of what at first might sound like so much noise, patterns, and motifs begin to appear and are then replayed with parts removed, added, or changed in some manner, that gives new emphasis to the music. Much like abstract art there is no specific object for the listener to hang on to, rather they have to find their won way into the music via some less concrete path like emotions.

The other thing that listeners have to be aware of is how much of what they are listening to is being created in front of them and that pieces will change each time they are played and depending on who is playing them. You have to surrender any conceptions you might have held about "songs", and start thinking of a tune as a collection of notes to be used as inspiration, not an end in itself. So while you might hear something akin to what you think of as a melody at some point, those notes will be folded, bent, mutilated, and spindled in any manner of ways over the course of a performance.

Formed in 1965 the Association For The Advancement Of Creative Musicians (AACM) of Chicago has been the breeding ground for some of the most innovative and creative voices in modern African American music and most specifically jazz. Tenor saxophone player Fred Anderson was one of the founding members of the AACM and has been a key figure in the reinterpretation of classic be-bop standards from the forties in the new style. So it's only fitting that for his eightieth birthday bash at the club he has operated for years, the Velvet Lounge, one set was devoted to re-workings of Dextor Gordon and Wardell Gray's "The Chase" from 1947. It's only appropriate that Delmark Records, one of the first labels to record members of the AACM, were there for that gig in March 2009 and have now released it as the CD, 21st. Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash, Live At The Velvet Lounge. On that night Anderson was joined by his long time collaborator and fellow tenor saxophone player Kidd Jordan, plus a backing band made up of Jeff Parker on guitar, Harrison Bankhead on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums.

"The Chase" was written for two saxophones, one of many pieces from the early days of jazz that deliberately included two tenor saxophone parts so as to encourage competition between players. On 21st Century Chase Anderson and Jordan have taken two cracks at the tune, with "21st Century Chase Pt. l" checking in at thirty-five minutes long and "21st Century Chase Pt. ll" coming in at a much brisker fourteen minutes. I think what amazed me the most about listening to "Part l" is not once was I aware of its length. I have to admit to being a bit daunted at the prospect of listening to a jazz piece over a half-hour in length. However once you become immersed in the music, time becomes irrelevant.

Anderson and Jordan don't make any concessions to their listeners either. There's no gentle easing into the track with the playing of a melody that will lay the foundation for improvising. Instead the song begins with the saxophone issuing a challenge to the listeners that they are in for anything but an easy ride. Yet, there's something compelling about its near dissonance that grabs you attention and pulls you into the song. From the initial opening the piece then continues on as the two saxophone players chase each other up one side of the music and down the other, While I guess someone more familiar with the playing styles of each man would be able to discern who is playing when, their playing was so seamlessly intertwined it was nearly impossible for me to tell when one man left off and the other began.

While "Chase Parts l & ll" featured the two saxophones predominately, the final cut on the CD, "Ode To Alvin Fielder" allows the rest of the band to shine as well. In fact guitar player Jeff Parker, is front and centre for a good deal of the cut and shows that jazz guitar can be every bit as inventive and exciting as a horn any day of the week. Not content to be merely fast and play plenty of notes, he's also able to take the themes he is expressing and bend them into various shapes and sizes. He manipulates the music in such a way that you can almost see taking form in front of you.

Avant-garde, improvised, or new jazz — whatever you want to call it — is an acquired taste. It requires patience and a willingness to listen and learn on the part of the audience. Those who are willing to make the effort to appreciate this music will find themselves entering into a world where music comes to life in a way they've never experienced before. As one of the founders of the AACM Fred Anderson has been in forefront of this musical exploration for more then forty years. Listening to his latest recording, 21st Century Chase: 80th Birthday Bash At The Velvet Lounge, is an opportunity to hear him apply his years of experience and expertise as an improviser and creative force and revel in the results. This is music at its freest and most abandoned, and while it may not be the most accessible genre in the world, its definitely one of the most exciting, and this chance to hear it played by one of the masters shouldn't be missed.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.