Chicago’s rich, vibrant tradition of great tenor saxophonists is beyond dispute. Names like Gene Ammons, Clifford Jordan, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, Sonny Stitt, and John Gilmore clearly establish this city’s massive contribution to the music via what is probably the archetypal instrument of jazz. Yet the legacy runs deeper than the commonly cited names. From the straight hard-bop blowing of the late, largely unknown E. Parker McDougal to the brilliantly incisive lines of current genius Edward Wilkerson Jr., Chicago’s tenor history covers a remarkable stylistic diversity. Of the lesser-knowns, perhaps no one has been more criminally ignored than sax pioneer Fred Anderson. A spate of recent attention, however, may yet bring this influential, sublimely humble, and still very active musician the credit he deserves.

When he hit the scene in the early 60s, Anderson’s restless, probing creativity led him to forge long-running associations with musicians who would later form the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). An Anderson-led group consisting of saxophonist Joseph Jarman–best known for his work with the Art Ensemble of Chicago–trumpeter Billy Brimfield, the late bassist Curtis Clark, and New Orleans drummer Arthur Reed was ostensibly the first AACM group. Anderson’s earliest recording is on Jarman’s crucial album, 1967’s Song For (Delmark), which opens with Anderson’s composition “Little Fox Run,” a languid yet invigorating chunk of raucous free-ish blowing. As the Art Ensemble coalesced and other AACM groups pursued an increasingly holistic musical approach, voraciously bringing in all sorts of nonjazz sources, Anderson chose to streamline his playing. He delivered lengthy linear improvisations with his huge, sinewy, brawny tone, appropriating hard-bop vocabulary in a style that resembled the freest playing of Sonny Rollins. A chapter on Anderson in John Corbett’s book Extended Play describes the saxophonist soaking up hard-bop sounds and practicing throughout the 50s in thoughtful preparation: “I had a lot of respect for the music and I was determined to see what was going on, sit back, listen, and sort out the things that I thought were important to play.”

Throughout the 70s Anderson continued gigging around town, wisely expecting no remuneration from his music; again from Corbett’s book: “I’m so busy out here just tryin’ to survive, you know? Keep the bread coming, keep my health going, pay the rent. I never really think about the lights.” Anderson’s wealth of knowledge and experience attracted younger musicians like trombonist George Lewis, reedman Douglas Ewart, and drummer Hamid Drake, whose stints in Anderson’s group were more like an education than a steady gig. In the late 70s he opened a near-north bar called the Birdhouse; he replaced it in 1982 with a south-side haunt, the Velvet Lounge, where he still holds his legendary biweekly jam sessions.

Over the years only a few recordings of Anderson’s music have been made, and most of them are currently out of print. The scarcity of his music is but one reason the release of Vintage Duets (Okka Disk) is cause for celebration. In January of 1980, roughly the same time as the stellar quartet date preserved on The Missing Link (Nessa), Anderson recorded this pair of lengthy duets–each more than 20 minutes–with the late Steve McCall on drums; the session was recorded for a European label that folded before the album was released. Its spare setting, simultaneously elegant and primal, allows the listener to focus on Anderson’s musical core. His sound exploits the tenor’s full range, most notably the fat bottom; in most hands this unwieldy territory is little more than flatulent blurts, but Anderson navigates it with a fluency that belies its difficulty.

Building upon simple melodic motifs, his highly emotional, excitingly visceral solos build mountains from a pile of dust. Anderson’s initial nugget of lyricism gets stretched out, turned inside out, chopped up, rearranged, and spliced with an endless streak of economical reinvention. His conception of free playing lies in his almost stream-of-consciousness linear development, but it’s undergirded by an unflagging logic of forward progression. On both the blistering mid-tempo “Within” and the smoldering Ornette Coleman-like ballad “Wandering,” his seemingly telepathic interactions with the brilliant McCall–still best remembered for his substantial contributions to the radical trio Air with former Chicagoans Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins–tap into a wellspring of emotional purity that can make the listener forget just how astounding the technical achievement is.

Anderson’s appearance at the 16th Chicago Jazz Festival with what was billed as the Fred Anderson Reunion Band represented long overdue official recognition of his achievements and stature. Joined by Brimfield, Ewart, Lewis, Drake, his New Orleans tenor buddy Ed “Kidd” Jordan, and bassist Harrison Bankhead, Anderson triumphantly blasted the set open with a rousing version of “Little Fox Run.” Immediately leaping into a long, scorching solo, Anderson assumed his prone position, hunkered over his horn like a man with severe back problems, and remained rooted firmly to the ground. Propelled by Hamid Drake’s powerful swinging drive and constantly changing frontline unison riff outbursts, Anderson’s horn screamed as if possessed by a higher spirit. Jordan followed with an equally affecting, more extroverted turn loaded with squealing harmonics, which offered a telling contrast to Anderson, who sticks with direct intonation. After terrific solos by both Brimfield and Lewis, the group seamlessly segued into “Wandering,” masterfully shifting to a brooding bluesy feel, Bankhead transforming his furious lines to a slow, evocative expression of poignant sorrow. Anderson’s live solo was more lithe than the recorded version, and a striking bass clarinet solo by Ewart led into a dramatic outro. The brief closer was crammed with spellbinding collective improvisation.

One would hope that this superb performance signals a new era for Fred Anderson, one in which his name will provoke nods of recognition rather than confused head-scratching. A new recording with Drake and the amazing pianist Marilyn Crispell is forthcoming on Okka Disk, and split gigs with huge fan Ken Vandermark have resulted in an increasing number of north-side bookings, exposing Anderson to a new audience. His group will perform on a bill with the Vandermark Quartet at Lounge Ax, 2438 N. Lincoln, on September 22.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.