|One Final Note Review: It's not much of a secret anymore that Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge is one of the premier venues in the Windy City (and quite possibly the world) for live performances of forward-thinking jazz. Whether offering up the stage for rare engagements from local heroes, even rarer collaborations that result from the Europe-Chicago connection fomented by John Corbett and Ken Vandermark, or weekly come-as-you-are jam sessions, Anderson can pretty safely guarantee that any time passed within the club's retro-papered walls is well spent. But it's also served Anderson well on a personal level; thanks to the persistent efforts of his right-hand man and sound documentarian Clarence Bright, several sets of the saxophonist's music have been made available for public consumption.
Back At The Velvet Lounge is the second of such releases on the Delmark label (others have preceded on Asian Improv and Okka Disk), capturing yet another typical evening of gritty freebop at the Velvet. Anderson's pick-up band largely consists of the usual suspects—drummer Chad Taylor, guitarist Jeff Parker, bassists Tatsu Aoki and Harrison Bankhead—with the exception of young trumpeter Maurice Brown. Brown's presence proves to be the wildcard that brings this session a notch below Anderson's customarily high standards, as he often appears to struggle with the saxophonist's harmonic concepts and improvised transitions. That's not to say that he doesn't have his share of bright moments on the three tracks that feature his playing (especially his torrential runs on "Fougeux", which had me initially thinking he could be a foil for Anderson on the level of Bill Brimfield), but his frequently fumbled handoffs and discrepant harmonies account for some definitely awkward moments over the course of the disc.
The rest of the group performs admirably despite these difficulties, although there are several moments when they seem to have trouble gelling as well. Figuratively speaking, the stage doesn't seem to be large enough for Bankhead and Aoki on the one piece that features them together on bass ("Olivia"), but that could be a consequence of a mix that heavily favors Aoki. They fare far better in tandem when Bankhead switches to acoustic guitar for the disc's high point, "Job Market Blues"—a moody vamp-oriented blues that finds Bankhead and Parker hanging layers of filigreed chords over Anderson's viscous tenor ruminations. Of everyone though, it's Taylor that proves to be the most sensitive to the band's efforts, as evidenced on the final track "King Fish"; he pulls the quartet out of (or, better said, into) its preliminary funk, then (presumably having noticed the trumpeter's difficulty with the previous piece's less frenetic pace) abruptly switches to a swinging jaunt when Brown steps to the forefront.
Anderson is quoted in the liner notes as not ruminating over his performances after the fact—and even a session as inconsistent as this one shows he has no reason to, considering that his own playing is as rock-solid as ever. But taking into account the loose, jam-session feel that prevails throughout, Back At The Velvet Lounge is one probably best left for the completists—particularly when weighed in comparison to the saxophonist's other recorded masterworks.