a column by
Kidd Jordan + Fred Anderson Michael Wilderman©2009
It takes a minute or two into the DVD version of 21st Century Chase to notice that tenor saxophonists Fred Anderson and Kidd Jordan are wearing identical t-shirts, silkscreened with an image of saxophonist Eddie Harris in his plugged-in prime. Their sartorial coordination is partially obscured by their horns, and in Anderson’s case, his patented crouch; additionally, the opening salvos of the 36-minute title piece distract from assessing such production fine points as wardrobe. But, the donning of the shirts is significant because it was Harris who first told Anderson and Jordan about each other, albeit years before they finally played together. The search by one musician for another is a story common in jazz lore. Jordan’s is, in part, a measure of how far off the radar Anderson was as late at the 1980s, as Jordan was even unable to find Anderson while a taking course at Northwestern University in Evanston, where Anderson lived. Since their first meeting at the AACM’s 20th Anniversary Concert in ’85, their collaboration now ranks among jazz’s most fabled tenor tag teams. Subsequently, there’s a resonance to Anderson and Jordan celebrating Anderson’s 80th birthday at the end of the new millennium’s first decade, given the partnership’s genesis in old-school word of mouth: There’s a tenor player in …
With its clear honorific reference to Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray’s archetypal tenor battle, 21st Century Chase (Delmark has issued a CD version, too) can be heard as the completion of a creative arc more than three score in the making. Anderson and Jordan heard “The Chase” on 78s as kids, its spirited toasts and ripostes emblematic of an era that celebrated competition in jazz. Tenor battles and cutting contests have been sublimated in jazz over the intervening decades, their sport supplanted by the collective, ritualistic impetus of, among others, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and the AACM. Repeatedly in the commentary to the DVD, Anderson praises his cohorts’ abilities to “complement” what he is playing. Listen to Gordon and Gray without relying on the construct of a chase or a volley or 15 rounds, and that’s exactly what they’re doing – complementing, as well as barbing each other. It was this same complementary relationship that made brand names out of subsequent tenor tandems like Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, and Johnny Griffin and Lockjaw Davis, not the fight-night façade. While collaboration may have replaced competition in such set-ups over the decades, the traditional electricity of tenor duals runs through not only Anderson and Jordan’s exchanges, but the work of guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Harrison Bankhead (who switches to cello when Henry Grimes sits in on the DVD-only “Gone But Not Forgotten”) and drummer Chad Taylor.
Electricity – which brings us back to Eddie Harris. As his image pops out from behind Anderson and Jordan’s horns over the course of the DVD, sometimes partially obscured by their straps or folded on itself as the saxophonists bob and sway and twist, it takes on a totemic aspect, like the head that is sometimes carved into the torso of another animal on a pole to signify that its power and spirit have been absorbed. For those familiar with Harris only as the composer of “Freedom Jazz Dance” and such hit records as Exodus to Jazz, The Electrifying Eddie Harris and Swiss Movement (the latter co-led with pianist/singer Les McCann), he may seem an unlikely symbol for Anderson and Jordan. Yet, Harris has to be considered within the evolution of musician self-determination that runs through Chicago’s post-war jazz history. He played a role in the prehistory of the AACM, one that went beyond employing founders Muhal Richard Abrams and Jodie Christian beginning in the late 1950s. By 1960, Harris – who not only had university training, but also performed with the US Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra and, after his discharge, New York pit bands – was also involved in the movement for advanced music education and formal concerts for original music incubated at the C & C Lounge (Abrams also took part, and led the younger, more experimentally minded musicians when the workshop dissolved over the commercial aspirations of the older organizers; by then, Harris had left Chicago to capitalize on Exodus in Jazz). Throughout this period, Harris was also exploring new sounds by modifying his tenor saxophone with bassoon boccels, clarinet double-barrel joints, and trombone mouthpieces, precursors to his trailblazing use of real-time electronic signal processing and reed mouthpiece for brass instruments. By the time he passed in 1996, Harris held the US patent for the reed mouthpiece and had published seven instruction books.
The characteristic distinguishing Harris’ activities from those of the AACM is that he pursued them as an individual, an entrepreneur. In founding and developing performance spaces, Anderson followed Harris’ example more closely than the collective model of the AACM, even though he was among its earliest members, if not technically a founder (read: incorporator) – he played the legendary inaugural concert in August 1965 as a member of Joseph Jarman’s quintet. Be it the Birdhouse, which was opened barely a year before entrenched neighborhood interests and the city government caused it to close in 1978, or the original Velvet Lounge, a victim of real estate speculation, Anderson took on the burdens of ownership, as in: You’re on your own. Arguably, waves of younger musicians have been inspired by Anderson’s commitment to DIY as much as his music. Granted, he mentored musicians since the early ‘70s, beginning with pianist Adegoke Steve Colson and saxophonist Chico Freeman when they attended Northwestern University; within a few years, the growing ranks of Anderson’s mentees included drummer Hamid Drake, multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart and trombonist George Lewis. Anderson’s long run at the old Velvet (which opened in ’82) coincided with generational and cultural shifts that extended Anderson’s influence first to Chicago musicians outside the African American community and, with accelerating speed throughout the ‘90s, to the international creative music community. By 2006, when Anderson moved the Velvet to its current location on short notice – an astounding feat made possible in part through a grassroots fundraising campaign that brought in contributions from throughout the US and Europe – he was lionized not only as a musician, but as a community pillar.
Much of the same can be said of Jordan in regards to New Orleans, even though Jordan’s venue was Southern University, not a storefront. With his brother-in-law, clarinetist Alvin Batiste, who taught at Southern’s Baton Rouge campus, and pianist Ellis Marsalis, who presided at the University of New Orleans, Jordan was part of a troika responsible for the advanced education of a large swath of New Orleans musicians; his students include saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. and the founders of Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Like Marsalis, Jordan is also the patriarch of an esteemed New Orleans family of musicians, father to flutist Kent, trumpeter Marlon, singer Stephanie and producer/violinist Rachel. (All of them were devastated by Katrina. It took several days after the deluge to confirm Kidd and his horns had gotten out. Marlon was stranded on his roof for four days and had to flown to Birmingham, Alabama to be treated for dehydration. The horror of Stephanie, Rachel and Kidd’s homes being all but destroyed by the flood was followed by the no exit nightmare of relocation and rebuilding).
With drummer Alvin Fielder, Jordan substantively contributed to the early ‘8os high-water mark of artist-produced recordings with The Improvisational Arts Quintet’s No Compromise! (1983; Prescription Records). Rounded out by Kent, trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr. and a succession of bassists – London Branch plays double bass on tracks recorded in ’78; Elton Heron plays electric bass on the ‘82 tracks – IAQ had a distinctive ensemble sound. The front line’s swinging polyphony bridged traditional New Orleans jazz and Coleman’s change of the century on Jordan’s “Ettenro Ocelamn” (the title derived from the rearrangement of “Ornette Coleman”). Yet, most of the album had an edge that was the polar opposite of the earnest New Orleans classicism of Wynton Marsalis and Dr. Michael White. Jordan’s lengthy solo exposition on “Three Pastels” employs many of the same techniques with which he opens “21st Century Chase,” albeit on alto instead of tenor. Annotator Kalamu ya Salaam is spot on when he writes that “(l)ike Coltrane and Coleman, Jordan’s cogent music is simple but challenging and prods each musician to hear sound in a context different from the customary harmonic changes. Nevertheless, with Kidd, the issue boils down to his hot brass-like approach to saxophone. Sometimes it is difficult to tell what instrument he is playing and at certain moments he finds tonalities that, even in this post-Ayler, post-Trane, post-Sanders and post-Shepp era, are startlingly new for the saxophone. It is easy to imagine how iconoclastic Jordan’s saxophone sound is in New Orleans. “
This is the sound that starts the chase more than thirty five years later at The Velvet; its textures and vocal qualities still cut to the quick like they did on “Three Pastels.” Within a minute, Jordan offers a virtual master’s class of this post-Ayler era, employing vivid colors to create rapid-fire rhythm patterns and visceral exhortations in such a thoroughly integrated manner that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious bead Anderson could take in response. Sure, it can be heard as a heralding of Anderson, but it’s also a dare to him: Catch me if you can. For all of his considerable humility and talk about complementing his friend, it’s obviously game-on with Anderson; his initial stirrings in the lower register can be likened to a great miler who knows the race isn’t won when the starter’s pistol fires; the initial step is to establish his rhythm of breath and stride. In short order, Anderson and Jordan are neck and neck, full out, engaged in brilliant counterpoint. By the time Jordan peels off nearly a dozen minutes into the piece, allowing Anderson to become the pacesetter, the music is … well, electric. The current remains strong throughout this momentous recording. But, it’s not the electricity of octave dividers and oscillators juxtaposed against a funky beat. It’s 21st Century electricity.