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January/February 2004

Fred Anderson
Back at the Velvet Lounge
Delmark Records

Septuagenarian saxophonist Fred Anderson has managed Chicago's Velvet Lounge since the early 1980s, holding court both behind the bar and on the weathered stage. In 1998, Okka Disk captured him in this natural habitat, with an album simply titled Live at the Velvet Lounge. The Asian Improv label soon followed suit, with two separate discs. And in 2001, Delmark Records entered the fray, with On the Run: Live at the Velvet Lounge. So Back at the Velvet Lounge, again on Delmark, has some pedigree.

Unlike earlier Velvet Lounge recordings, most of which featured Anderson with a trio, this disc has the tenor man leading a full quintet. Frequent collaborators Tatsu Aoki and Chad Taylor reprise their stalwart roles on bass and drums, respectively. Guitarist Jeff Parker solos coolly and convincingly (and not nearly often enough). The young trumpeter Maurice Brown performs unevenly-some solos are significantly stronger than others-but ultimately makes a solid contribution. And a sixth man, Harrison Bankhead, contributes nice additional bass work but sounds clearly out of his element playing acoustic guitar on the rambling "Job Market Blues." The ensemble as a whole, anchored by Taylor and Aoki, demonstrates both an effortless elasticity and the willingness to let a good groove lie.

Anderson still has a tenor saxophone sound of Old Testament proportions. At its most compelling-on "Fougeux," for instance, which opens the set-his playing weighs bluesy bluster against unpredictable long-form phrases. Other moments, however, come across as lengthy without purpose: "Olivia," which begins promisingly, unravels into a rant that leads only to vamp-land, with Anderson's horn bleating frustratingly out of tune. But such are the risks of this brand of musicmaking. All told, Back at the Velvet Lounge has its scattered failings, but there are quite a few moments elsewhere in the set-like Anderson's choruses on the laid-back "Syene"-that manage to compensate.

Originally published in January/February 2004
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