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July/August 2007

Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake
From the River to the Ocean
Thrill Jockey

Tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and percussionist Hamid Drake have worked often with guitarist Greg Parker and bassists Harrison Bankhead and Josh Abrams at Anderson’s Velvet Lounge in Chicago; listening to them here is like dropping in on a long-running conversation. Most of Anderson’s improvisational ideas will probably also sound familiar. But he brings such immediacy and soul-stirring dedication to them that even the tried-and-true becomes reborn.

Anderson doesn’t usually play changes per se—he states a theme that he and his colleagues are then free to elaborate upon, depart from, return to, or even entirely reconstruct as they see fit. In this sense, “Strut Time” is anomalous: based on a swinging two-chord vamp, it stays in the same groove throughout its 21-minute-plus run. Even here, though, Anderson discovers virtually endless possibilities, unfurling solos that circle back and invert themselves like Möbius strips.

Bankhead’s “For Brother Thompson,” dedicated to the late Chicago-based trumpeter Malachi Thompson, is a solemn tribute, its funeral atmosphere intensified by Bankhead’s resonant bass-register piano work and Drake’s meditative Arabic chanting. There are echoes of Coltrane (“Spiritual,” “Song of Praise”) in Anderson’s playing here, although that scorched urban wail is his alone. On the title track, Drake’s frame drum, Parker’s serpentine intertwinings, and Abrams’ bass-like guimbri—as well as more intonations in Arabic from Drake—accentuate the Middle Eastern feel. The meditative atmosphere continues on the percussion-less “Sakti/Shiva,” which again opens with a solo bass statement, over which Anderson lays a stately theme that he develops and expands gradually throughout the rest of the piece.

This set emphasizes subtlety over show, group interplay over individual scenery chewing, and ideas over pyrotechnics. In other words, it demands your full attention—it’s not background music for multitasking. But, as usual, for serious aficionados the rewards are worth the effort.

Originally published in July/August 2007
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