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Chicago Trio - Velvet Songs: To Baba Fred Anderson

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Artist: Chicago Trio

Album: Velvet Songs: To Baba Fred Anderson

Label: RogueArt

Review date: Mar. 27, 2012

In 2010, we lost an extraordinary musician, teacher and human being. It’s impossible to praise saxophonist Fred Anderson too highly, as he was a mentor to so many Chicago musicians over more than 50 years, giving them the benefit of his vast experience and running the Velvet Lounge, a place for them to try out their new ideas. Since his death, there have been several musical tributes to him, but Velvet Songs: To Baba Fred Anderson is among the best. The music — performed by saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, bassist/cellist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Hamid Drake — was recorded over two blistering August 2008 evenings at the Velvet; nonetheless, the music has all the energy, passion and depth with which Anderson imbued every note he played and every lesson he taught.

It doesn’t matter which of these lengthy tracks you sample, because each is a microcosmic representation of the whole, and each reveals the master status of these three improvisers. Dawkins molds his opening solo on “One for Fred” with the certainty of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five solos, laying down a phrase, leaving room for quick meditation before embarking on the next, and then returning to an idea only to develop it further. He brings things way out, encompassing the blues, modality and what I’ll call “Chicago freedom” in increasingly sweeping gestures, then brings it all back to the composition’s root phrase. Very few can pull this off without the whole thing seeming somehow pedantic, or inorganically premeditated, and this Dawkins tenor solo joins the ranks of similar contributions from Cecil Taylor and Henry Grimes, not to mention Anderson himself, all similarly gifted purveyors of tradition and innovation. Yet, when Bankhead and Drake explode into the moment, the music attains a new level of communication. At around 5:50, they suddenly swing into a massive funk groove, a sly and witty game in which Dawkins is only too glad to participate.

By contrast, and to demonstrate the extraordinary diversity of these two nights of music, we are treated to “Moi Tre Gran Garcon,” an equally epic journey with a very different feel. While Dawkins is not credited with percussion, this is one of several instances where he carries on the Art Ensemble tradition of incorporating little instruments. The ostinato-driven piece finds Bankhead on cello and Dawkins playing beautiful soprano, while what I take to be Drake’s frame drum holds things down. Bankhead switches effortlessly from pizzicato to arco and back again. The percussion thickens, lessens, and morphs, but remains a constant backdrop to this deeply modal excursion.

As good as the music is, Velvet Songs: To Baba Fred Anderson would not be what it is without a first-rate production. This is, quite simply, one of the best live recordings I’ve heard. RogueArt should be commended for what is now one of the best releases in the label’s formidable catalogue.

By Marc Medwin

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