Review by Brad Walseth
For Chicago jazz fans there is perhaps nothing more exhilarating than an evening spent in Fred Anderson's South Loop Velvet Lounge listening to Fred and his New Orleans counterpart Kidd Jordan engage in a mammoth tenor saxophone battle. On the final night of a week of concerts in March 2009, celebrating Anderson's 80th birthday, the two titans squared off and, backed by bassist Harrison Bankhead, drummer Chad Taylor and guitarist Jeff Parker, nearly burned down Fred's beloved venue. All of this is thankfully captured by Delmark on the newly-released Fred Anderson 21st Century Chase in CD or DVD format, the latter of which especially recreates the atmosphere of that evening. Although I was not present at this particular occasion, I have witnessed these two elder statesmen sax shredders in action first hand - most notably at an after hours set at the 2008 Jazz Fest in which I was seated on the garbage can in the corner with my hair blown straight back by the energy generated.
A longtime tradition, as Neil Tesser points out in his fine liner notes, this recording takes it's title from the infamous 1947 recording by Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray called "The Chase." That these artists are able to improvise at the lengths they do ("21st Century Chase Part 1" is 36:13) speaks as much about creativity and sensitivity as it does about the intensive stamina it requires. Although it may at first seem like cacophony, there is considerable interplay and the creation of an actual composition on the fly. Bankhead is a marvel - dressed in top hat, black and orange oriental jacket and matching orange pants - the only reason his hands don't bleed is because he has played so many of these type of gigs that his mitts could probably crush boulders. Parker is an excellent choice here as he has a wide range of experience playing in improvised scenes and can draw on an impressive palette of sounds in support. Drummer Taylor - a last minute replacement for Hamid Drake - was also a member of the same Chicago musical circles as Parker - now relocated to NYC - where he is equally at home in the world's of jazz and rock; he impresses with his energetic propulsion.
But let there be no doubts, the two stars are Anderson and Jordan. Anderson began his career playing swing and hard bop, but became a part of Chicago's avant garde scene - cofounding the AACM. Although he is an exceptional free jazz player, you can hear echoes of his hero Charlie Parker in his robust playing. Jordan is a more modern free form player - allowing his playing to go wherever it wants, with the result at times surprising shrieks and squeaks. This makes for some delicious communication between the two, with Anderson generally taking the low end while Jordan heads for the upper register. Note where they bring it all home together at the conclusion of the first piece with their exchange of counter lines - a call and response that takes us back to the African roots of this music - something the rest of the band immediately jumps on. Bankhead's ghostly bowing bass harmonics open Part 2, with Anderson soon joining in a duet. Taylor and Jordan soon join in and finally Parker to bring another one-of-a-kind free form work to life. Parker is given the opportunity to open the third tune, "Ode to Alvin Fielder" (AACM drummer and Anderson and Jordan associate) and displays his skill at improvising. The rhythm section kicks in behind him and the they start swinging in almost a straight ahead manner with Anderson taking the lead and playing in the sweetly melodic fashion that is his own. Of course things get a little more deconstructed when Jordan follows. As an added bonus, track 4 (DVD only) brings bassist Henry Grimes to the stage (Bankhead remains, moving to cello). Grimes is the legendary bassist who disappeared in the late 1960s and was discovered living in poverty in California only a few years ago has made a comeback into the world of music. He starts off "Gone But Not Forgotten" showing why he is such a respected figure who has been welcomed back so warmly. Finally, you won't want to miss the incredible commentary track with Fred as he humbly recounts stories of how he and Kidd met, why they both wear Eddie Harris T-shirts and how he gets his signature sound. If you enjoy the rush and catharsis that comes from witnessing live improvised jazz music, you will want to pick up a copy of the DVD today. And make a visit to Fred's club one of these nights, dammit!