Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake From The River To The Ocean

[Thrill Jockey; 2007]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: Chicago, world influenced jazz, free improv
Others: Sonny Rollins, Art Ensemble Of Chicago, Isotope 217

With so much already written about them and decades of prolific output, it’s difficult to come up with new ways to describe the music of Fred Anderson and Hamid Drake. While it’s true that Anderson has gained much-deserved notoriety only in recent years (consequently, his golden years), he gets an A+ for consistency, which is no small order. Any loss of words certainly isn’t from a lack of quality on their part, and there is indeed some fine playing on their most recent outing, From The River To The Ocean. Slightly more laid back than their last album for Thrill Jockey, this time around the duo is joined by Jeff Parker, Harrison Bankhead, and Josh Abrams. Boasting a line up of Chicago all-stars (not to mention being recorded by John McEntire), the interplay between one another seems to flow like a sixth sense. Although not necessarily breaking new ground, listening to a group that’s so connected to one another’s improvisatory intuition is certainly enough of a treat in itself, and the long history between Anderson and Drake is crucial in making From the River a success.

The album takes off quickly with Anderson’s tune “Planet E,” and after a brief, hyper-angular sax melody, they get right into improvising over Drake’s Latin-flavored drum lines. But with Anderson’s initial statement sounding so authoritative, it’s surprising to hear Jeff Parker taking the first solo on the album. Parker’s tube-warmed guitar tone pales in comparison to Anderson’s sax which is more up front in the mix, and it’s only natural that there’d be a little loss in momentum. But Parker is a great guitar player, and despite him naturally sounding like accompaniment and tirelessly trying to command attention, his notey, harmonic soloing is the perfect balance to Anderson’s exploratory melodies. As usual, Drake has an impeccable ability to hold a steady groove while constantly busying himself around the kit. He continually finds new rhythm within rhythms and provides the perfect setting for Anderson’s quick riffs to dance around.

Things are going great until they get into the blues. I’m suddenly reminded of how prolific these fellas are and just how consistent they can be. While “Planet E” rushed in with a sense of urgency and bore compositional originality, “Strut Time” sounds like a jam session. While before I would have praised them for their sense of flow and ease with each other, “Strut Time” finds them getting a little bit too comfortable. They’re good at it, so it’s hard to hold it against them, but a 20-minute meditation on the blues, after what seemingly had so much more possibility, seems a little indulgent.

Things continue down an eclectic path, and as usual for all these players, they dabble in referencing different stylistic points while still maintaining a signature sound. Both “For Brother Thompson,” dedicated to trumpeter Malachi Thompson, and the title track explore modal improvisation, and have a spiritual bent to them. For lack of a better term, call it "world music." Far from being some derogatory, back-handed compliment meant to describe ethnic culture in a broad yet narrow-minded sense, Hamid Drake is a master of everything he chooses to take on, and years of experience have allowed him to bring so much to the table. Although not stocked with an arsenal of various percussion, he does take time to chant in Arabic and play his frame drum. “From The River To The Ocean,” clearly the centerpiece of the album, sounds like a descendant of Sandy Bull’s records on Vanguard with drummers Billy Higgins and Denis Charles. Admittedly, it’s a lengthy meditation based on a few simple ideas just like its predecessor, “Strut Time,” to which I was more critical. However, it does have a clearer sense of direction, and being less than half “Strut Time"’s length helps as well.

“Sakti/Shiva” is left as a spare duet between Anderson’s sax and Abrams’s Guimbri. It may be the shortest tune out of the bunch, but in a strange way, its simplistic statement ties together the wide array of music on this album. Although this isn’t the '70s and their philosophies don’t have the same kind of unparalleled freshness that they once did, their dedicated eclecticism follows in the lineage of the A.A.C.M. and continues to explore a musical heritage far beyond the realm of jazz. Ultimately, From the River is casual, confident, and fascinating evidence of the ongoing relationship between these musicians.

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