The closest of relationships gives its members space to expand, change, develop, and play. Tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson and drummer Hamid Drake have just that kind of partnership, one that has seen them periodically move apart and work extensively on other fronts – Anderson tending to the recent relocation of his major jazz venue the Velvet Lounge; Drake in a dizzying array of globetrotting ensembles – but always returning to the fold, digging in together and checking out what’s been learned in the interim. Over the course of some three decades, master saxophonist and prodigy percussionist have continued to reconfirm their commitment to their joint project.
Following up on their acclaimed Thrill Jockey 2004 CD Back Together Again, Drake and Anderson set out to show just how much they’d grown, how beautifully their work together has evolved. Drafting an all-star band consisting of fellow-Chicagoans, the twosome entered John McEntire’s Soma Studios and proceeded to record their most relaxed, perfectly balanced date yet. In a discography that has gone from a handful of rare LPs fifteen years ago to a staggering number of discs on various labels today, it may seem hyperbolic to call From the River to the Ocean Fred Anderson’s greatest album yet, but the empathy and cohesiveness of the ensemble, coupled with the saxophonist’s brilliant, searching improvisations, makes it a ringer.
From the River to the Ocean is an especially varied outing, ranging from Anderson’s classic set-closing blues “Strut Time” to the meditative, spiritual, modal track “For Brother Thompson,” dedicated to the late trumpeter Malachi Thompson and featuring bassist Harrison Bankhead on brooding piano and Drake chanting in Arabic. The record’s title track and the closer, “Sakti/Shiva,” find bassist Josh Abrams laying down an astounding bed on guimbri, the three-stringed Moroccan acoustic bass familiar to fans of Gnawa music. Drake knows exactly how to work with guimbri, as evidenced on his CD The Wels Concert (Okka Disk) with guimbri player Mahmoud Gania and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. Another of the CD’s delights is guitarist Jeff Parker, known to many through his work with Tortoise and Isotope 217 and his prominent place in the current jazz guitar pantheon. Here, Parker displays an immense sensitivity and melodic genius, sharing solo spotlight with Bankhead’s cello on “From the River to the Ocean” and sculpting a stunning array of shapes on the group’s swinging take on Anderson’s “Planet E.”
Underneath is all is Hamid Drake, an intensely creative soul who has continued to challenge himself. Drake’s growth is not measured in how many different instruments he plays – indeed, he’s scaled back his arsenal over the years – but in the depth and musicality of his feeling. On this record he is remarkably light and airy, playing with tremendous delicacy and clarity. It goes to show that you don’t need to muscle your way into someone’s ears. Propulsion can be introduced without a pneumatic drill, and Drake instigates an avalanche of rolling forward momentum on the opening moments, inspiring the two basses and guitarist to move, to make something moving, and in turn to further inspire Fred Anderson to some of his most forceful and imaginative playing yet documented.
If the individual is a small receptacle of expressivity, a mountain spring if you will, then it is in ideal settings like this one that the springs join forces, turning into streams, then bigger and bigger tributaries, finally swelling into rivers that open into the oceanic creative waterways. Thank goodness Anderson and Drake have tapped into that wellspring, drawing directly from the source.