Tribute Concert Sets Stage for Art Ensemble of Chicago Book Release

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The Art Ensemble of Chicago members Don Moye (left), Roscoe Mitchell, Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors are the subject of a new book, which was released at a Fred Anderson tribute concert in Chicago on March 29.

(Photo: Courtesy University of Chicago Press)

On several levels, Chicago saxophonist Fred Anderson, who died in June 2010, left a void that still needs to be filled. A man with an utterly friendly demeanor and admirable integrity, he never said anything derogatory about a fellow musician, usually reverting to his signature comment: “That’s the way he hears it, man.”

Painter Lewis Achenbach, who has taken the habit of sketching musicians during shows, noted Anderson’s “receptiveness and gentleness.” Although the visual artist moved to Chicago from New York after Anderson’s passing, he has been touched by the huge role the saxophonist played for the city’s jazz scene.

Indeed, Anderson is also missed as a nurturer of local musicians. Although he is often mistakenly presented as a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), he did provide an outlet to the organization’s members. As a club owner, the venues he ran—first the Birdhouse and then the two incarnations of the Velvet Lounge—served as an incubator for many artists. And it is telling that nobody has been able to step in to fully fill that vacuum to this day.

Since his passing, the Birdhouse, which Anderson’s former associate Sharon Friedman has kept going, has organized an annual tribute around the saxophonist’s birthday, March 22. This year, the event was hosted on March 29 at the legendary Jazz Showcase, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary.

For the occasion, a large number of the city’s jazz community members were in attendance, in particular other board members of Birdhouse—including Andy Pierce, who had volunteered at the Velvet Lounge, and Tim Reardon who used to present AACM musicians at his SoTish restaurant in west suburban La Grange—as well as former Velvet Lounge bartenders Martha Stahl, Uli Reist, and Clarence Bright.

This year, the tribute coincided with the release of Message To Our Folks (University of Chicago Press), a history and musical analysis of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the best ambassador the AACM had worldwide. The book was written by Paul Steinbeck, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and a Birdhouse board member.

In addition to his book-signing session, Steinbeck emceed the evening from a stage that featured on its left side a portrait of Anderson taken by Jim Newberry. Besides their obvious connection to the AACM, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Fred Anderson got to perform together at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle in November 2002. Some of the music they made that night was documented on at least one recording, Peace Be Unto You (AECO Records), released in 2008. Steinbeck saw it most opportune that the band assembled for the occasion would play several of the album’s compositions.

Bassist Tatsu Aoki was more than ready to oblige. He is a key member of Asian Improv aRts Midwest, the chapter of an organization born in the San Francisco Bay Area that strives to do for Asian-American musicians what the AACM has done for their African-American counterparts.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Aoki had been one of the most regular Anderson collaborators and had developed a special bond. For the occasion, he assembled a quintet of AIRM and AACM members: reed player Ed Wilkerson (tenor saxophone, B-flat and alto clarinets), alto saxophonist Mai Sugimoto, percussionist Coco Elysees (congas and djembe) and drummer Dushun Mosley.

The two sets focused on introspective improvisation rather than furious blowing, with the notable exception of Roscoe Mitchell’s “Horn Web–Part 1” that showcased Mosley’s explosive power. In retrospect, it was a wise decision, given that the band performed with minimum amplification, which at times made it difficult to appreciate Sugimoto’s thoughtful and crafty alto.

Aoki set the pace and mood from his directorial chair and the combo avoided any nostalgia or sorrowfulness. The highlight of the evening was the rendition of Malachi Favors Moghostut’s “Magg Zelma Suite.” The musicians left their print on the piece with some effective duos pairing Mosley’s thumb piano with Elysees’ djembe or pitting Sugimoto’s lilting alto against Wilkerson’s deep tenor.

Also featured was one of the most accessible pieces in the AEC catalogue, Mitchell’s “Odwalla,” which at the time had drawn some flak because of its commercial connection to the fruit juice company. But, as Wilkerson pointed out, it served as a reminder that beyond being a creative force they also “understood the necessities of that business.”

The music performed that night is not what you would usually hear at the Jazz Showcase, a venue with a focus on bebop and acts closer to the mainstream. Nevertheless, over the years its impresario Joe Segal had let Anderson hold fundraisers at his club. Even though their music tastes could defer, Segal understood first-hand the vicissitudes of being a club owner and could empathize with the saxophonist. DB



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