Fred Anderson: an interview with Lazaro Vega
GRAND RAPIDS—On May 18, 2002, The Roscoe Mitchell Quintet with special guest Fred Anderson played a successful benefit concert for Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp at the Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The quintet’s performance was recorded for future broadcast by Blue Lake Public Radio and GRTV/The Community Media Center of Grand Rapids. The concert tapes will be archived at the Jazz Institute of Chicago collection at the University of Chicago.
The following interview with Fred Anderson at home, May 15, 2002, was excerpted for radio broadcast over WBLV FM 90.3 (Muskegon and the Lake Michigan shoreline) and WBLU FM 88.9 (Grand Rapids) prior to the concert. Lazaro Vega is Blue Lake Public Radio’s jazz director since 1983.
LV: Do you remember whose idea it was to do the concerts with Roscoe Mitchell?
Whose idea it was? Well, I remember, basically it was my idea to play with Roscoe. We hadn’t played together in a long time. I think we played together in a jam session years ago. So we had played together. But it was my idea. When he finally said he was coming [to the Velvet Lounge] I suggested that we play together.
What is there in Roscoe’s playing that you thought might go with what you do?
I’ve been listening to Roscoe for a long time. But it’s not that. I just thought it would be a good bill. It turned out nice. It was a good idea because he hadn’t played at The Velvet before, and I hadn’t played with him.
So this is how we—the word—got around (laughs). That’s the funny thing about that particular night—we had a packed house. People were lined up all outside. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to my place or not but anyway, you know, it’s not very big. It holds about, comfortably, it holds 175 people. The place was packed that particular night.
Sure, I’ve been there. One thing I talked to Roscoe about that maybe you would comment on was as a saxophone player. In the post-John Coltrane/Albert Ayler continuum you’ve found a way that is different than many other free horn players. I mean you don’t use overtones as much, or split tones or false registers like your good friend Kidd Jordan, who has a tendency to play in the high false register of the tenor often. And Roscoe, too. Roscoe has a way of controlling glissandos, and doing things that are “off” the horn in a sense, even though he makes them on the horn. You’ve always found your own way.
FA: Well, (chuckles), since you mention that, you’ve got to remember: at the time that the AACM was formed, I was a little older than the guys, you know. I was probably, me and another guy named John Jackson, we were pretty much around about the same age, maybe: maybe he was a little younger than me, or we were about the same age.
And you’ve got to remember I had seen Charlie Parker play, and Lester Young. All those people. These guys (the early AACM musicians) were just a little too young. And they came up and they heard, you know, Coltrane. Most of ’em were into Coltrane. So I listen to ‘Trane, too, but I started out listening to Lester Young and Charlie Parker—those were the people who inspired me to play music.
They’re beautiful. That is well before Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane show—
—Well, see Sonny was around; he made a record with Charlie Parker, with Miles.
That’s one of the things you know what I mean? I can do all these things that you’re just saying, you know, there’s all the talented players. I can do all of those things, too. I understand all of them. But I don’t make that my primary thing when I’m playing.
It’s good. It’s all right. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with it. It makes a good contrast.
That’s the way I’m doing it because that was my roots. That’s probably the reason I play like I play. But I understand and I’ve done a lot of things in that vein, even with Kidd Jordan. We’ve got a record out called 2 Days In April. I don’t know if you’ve got that record or not.
What led you from the influence of Bird and Lester and the way they played to stretch out and play longer solos?
It was a continuation of what they were doing. Like I say, when I first heard Ornette Coleman, I think he was the first one that had nerve enough to take the music with that concept, but then had his own concept, too. But he really got it from Charlie Parker. See? When I heard Ornette Coleman back in those days, back in the early 1960s, I knew exactly what he was doing. It wasn’t strange to me. I knew exactly where he was coming from.
So Roscoe, he was playing like Ornette Coleman at one time. He jumped on the Ornette Coleman thing. Which was good. So he knows about all of that.
I think that’s one of the precepts of the AACM: you have to be familiar with the entire history and evolution of the music.
Right! Right, and he was hip to it. I don’t know, he had probably heard a lot of Charlie Parker. But I was around. I seen Charlie Parker in person the last time he was in Chicago. So I was really deep into him, more so than those guys. They didn’t have the experience of watching him because they were a little too young. They just missed him.
Kidd Jordan did catch him. But he was very young. He caught him when Charlie Parker was with Stan Kenton. We were talking about that. He heard Bird at that particular time. Kidd Jordan is a little younger than I am.
What did you think of John Litweiler’s comment in the Jazz Times magazine about you being the foremost underground, avant-garde tenor sax player today?
Oh yeah, that was a good article. We had a nice talk. Yeah, yeah, yeah, that was cool. That was all right. I mean, you know, that’s the way he’s seen it. I know John. John’s a good friend. We’ve talked a lot about the music and I think he understands. The article as a whole was a good article.
He put you on top. Pharoah Sanders, Peter Brotzmann, those guys are fine, but you’re the man in terms of cutting the edge.
Right. That was a very good article. Because I’ve always tried to keep the root position most of the time, and then do some of the things I’ve been able to hear myself, then interpret it and keep the concept going.
Roscoe described your concerts together as improvised sets from the get go, and that when a tune comes up you have such good ears you just jump in and go.
(Laughs) Well, yeah, that’s really what it’s all about. You know Roscoe, he’s been around a long time, he’s studied the music and he’s played some Charlie Parker. He recorded some of Charlie Parker’s music. So he pretty much knows what’s happening with the horn and what’s happening with the music. We really can just play and enjoy ourselves.
He and I both have been putting ourselves in a lot of different positions, different settings to play. We had never really played like that before, but it all came together.
It seems to me you really enjoy playing in the bass, drums, and tenor saxophone format. Is that your preferred instrumentation?
Well, yeah, I like that, but I’ve made records with piano players. You’ve got the record called Birdhouse (Okka Disk)? There’s a young piano player named Jim Baker. Then I made another record with a piano player in Germany called Didier Grushnager.[ED: uncertain spelling?] We did a trio called Neighbours. That was the first piano player that I ever played with. Then I made a record with Marilyn Crispell, that’s right, Destiny on Okka and later with Bradley Parker-Sparrow, Chicago Chamber Music, on Southport Records. Those are pretty much seminal.
So piano players? I have nothing against piano players. The reason I’m playing with smaller groups, like a trio and a quartet, is now I’ve got a young guitar player around here named Jeff Parker. You know that Asian Improv Record? [ED: The Fred Anderson Quartet, Volume 2, from the year 2000.] He hears the music right away. I can play with him because he has such good ears and he picks up on it for a youngster.
Charlie Parker was such a genius on all levels of music, yet he seemed to be dealing mostly with blues, popular song form harmony from “I Got Rhythm” and such, and when Ornette came on the scene it seemed like he said, “We’re going start in this key but if I modulate to another key I want you all to follow me.” Isn’t that the way Ornette was working there?
Well, Charlie Parker was basically doing the same thing. (Laughs) So he wasn’t doing anything that Charlie Parker wasn’t doing. The only thing about it is with Ornette, the rhythm probably interacted with him more so than with Charlie Parker. The rhythm interacted more with Ornette’s music, like Ed Blackwell and all of ’em, the drummers. But it was basically the same thing.
So are you following a harmonic form that goes right back to Bird when you’re soloing?
Well, you can’t do it that way, not exactly the way he did it, but you can keep that in mind. If you get around musicians that can hear you, like drummer Hamid Drake. I’ve made most of my records with him because we kind of built this thing up together. Actually he and I were the ones who started this whole particular thing. I have to give him a lot of credit, too, because he was able to do it since we started. I was the one who introduced him to Ed Blackwell years ago.
The first record I have with you guys is The Missing Link (Nessa).
Right! See now that’s what I was talking about. So we were sort of into that; like a spin-off of Ornette then, but we did it our way. Hamid Drake is very important in my music. In fact together it’s almost like Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington.
It sounds like, with people lining up out the door, The Velvet Lounge has a very successful music policy. Especially during the Chicago Jazz Festival—you couldn’t even get into your club after hours it was so packed. Do you think the Chicago jazz scene is particularly good right now for the kind of music you like to play?
Yes, it’s good because we’ve got a lot of varieties of things going on now so you have choices. The same people go around and hear all different music. The people there at The Empty Bottle come over to The Velvet, and The Velvet goes over to The Empty Bottle. It’s vise-versa. Then we’ve got The Hot House.
The last concert Roscoe and I did was at The Hot House which is a much bigger place than my place, and it was packed. It was a birthday celebration, and all the major newspaper writers were there. In fact I got a good article off of Howard Reich (Chicago Tribune). In fact Howard Reich just called me today, just before you did. He was asking me some things about an article he’s going to write in the next couple of days.
Then Chicago Sun Times writer Lloyd Sachs wrote the liner notes to the record we did, the last duet record I did, with drummer Robert Barry (Duets 2001: Live at the Empty Bottle, Thrill Jockey). That was a nice record done right on the spot. I had played with Robert a bit. That was our second or third time playing together. We had always pretty much traveled the same road.
I like Off Blue.
Off Blue. (laughs) Oh yeah, Off Blue. That’s interesting.
The record that a lot of people kind of sleep on is that one I did with Steve McCall, Vintage Duets (Okka Disc). That’s one of the classics, I believe. One of the things is because it was Steve McCall, and another thing is because we had been playing together a long time. We were commissioned to do that record but it never came out and I had the tape, and I finally got it out 15 years later.
I saw the duo concert you did at the Chicago Jazz Festival with Steve McCall.
Oh, you were there? The last one? He had just had a stroke, and that’s why I had to do the last tune a capella. He walked off the stage. I didn’t realize it at the time, but then, after I thought about it I never said anything about it and we never really talked about it, but he had a stroke just before that. Then he had another stroke and that was the one that took him out.
He was a very gracious man.
Oh yeah. He was. We had been friends for a long time. I used to have him over to my house out in Evanston, him and his wife and kids years ago. We did a lot of socializing together, too.
There have been so many great ones in or from Chicago, especially saxophone players. Did you know Gene Ammons?
I met Gene Ammons right after he got out of prison. I used to see him all the time, but I really got a chance to meet him when he got out of prison. He was playing out on the South Side, and I went out to see him play. When I got out there he was sick. I had a mouthpiece I wanted to give him because I knew he was the only one who could play this particular mouthpiece. I missed him and didn’t get a chance to give it to him. The next thing I know he’s passed away.
A drummer used to play with me named Ajaramu, he used to play with Gene Ammons at the time that organist John Logan was in the band. Of course Logan passed away not long ago. Gene was using an organ player and drums at that particular time and they were playing on Stony Island, out south.
It’s a beautiful legacy and a beautiful historical locus for jazz, Chicago. Anyone who’s been around that scene for the last twenty years knows you made an important contribution to that scene by keeping open a non-commercial venue like The Velvet Lounge.
We always try to do that. Now we’ve got the jam session because that’s how it started with The Velvet Lounge. Now every Sunday all of these young musicians come around and play. I used to play on the jam session when Bill Brimfield was here, but now I’ve got some younger guys here and they bring all of their friends so it’s movin’ on.
Did you ever see that NBC television program “E.R.” when they talked about going to the Velvet Lounge? The characters kept saying, “Don’t you want to go hear some jazz at the Velvet Lounge? Let’s go hear some jazz.” But their busy jobs kept them from all the fun.
Right. I heard about it. Somebody may have played a tape for me. That was good. It kind of helped us out a little bit. At least they thought enough to write it into the script.
Copyright ©2002 Jazz Institute of Chicago. All rights reserved.