Nicole Mitchell: flute | Craig Taborn: piano, whurlitzer | David Boykin: tenor saxophone | Chad Taylor: drums, acoustic guitar
All compositions by Nicole Mitchell
Recorded on January 11th – 13th 2013 by Griffin Rodriguez at Shape Shop II Studio, Hollywood, California, USA. Mixing and mastering: Griffin Rodriguez. Liner notes: Neil Tesser. Photographs: Griffin Rodriguez. Conception de la couverture : Max Schoendorff. Réalisation de la couverture : David Bourguignon. Producteur : Michel Dorbon
Tracklist: 1. Bright City (9:59) 2. Secret Assignement (11:16) 3. Discovery of the Jewel (2:24) 4. For the Cause (7:41) 5. Scaling the Underground (8:20) 6. Anderson’s Plan (7:05) 7. Running the Rooftops (7:59) 8. The Labyrinth of the Capture (7:18) 9. The Heroic Resue (7:51)
“the Velvet Lounge was a stellar environment for the development of creative music in Chicago and Fred Anderson provided support, encouragement, and inspiration to countless musicians for generations, while garnering an international audience for the music… He was a quiet man who rarely shared his ongoing struggles with the city and with local gangsters to keep things running. ‘The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson’ likens Fred Anderson to a superhero, whose humble exterior masked his real-life heroic trials and tribulations beyond the public’s awareness…
…The album is an animated illustration to further deepen the public’s impression of a real-life hero of Chicago, who walked with us and fought for us. I wanted to make Fred smile, to think that in this animation he can be a secret agent working against forces of musical demise.”
Nicole Mitchell’s Sonic Projections: Craig Taborn, Chad Taylor, David Boykin, Nicole Mitchell. Los Angeles, January 2013. Photo by Griffin Rodriguez
“Look! Up in the sky . . .”
Since the 1950s, that phrase and the exclamations that followed — “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! ” — have come to announce the superhero: born in the pulps of the 1930s, nurtured in the slick comic books of the 60s, revivified in the graphic novels of the 1980s and, here in the 21st century, splashed across the cultural landscape in TV, movies, and even theater. One arena nearly devoid of superhero lore has been that of improvised music — at least until now, when a new legend takes shape. Nurtured in the vivid imagination of Nicole Mitchell, sheathed in the respectful admiration of her band Sonic Projections, he steps forth from recently cast shadows in a tale of artistic truth, timbral beauty, and the Chicago way. You see him in the dark, motive piano figure that opens this album, which establishes the gridwork for the sprightly neon melody (flute and sax) that rises above it. You experience his passion in the freewheeling duet portions of “For The Cause,” which could serve as this album’s mission state-ment. You sense the pulse-pounding urgency of his quest in the album finale, with its relentless vigor and eventual triumph. And so . . .
“Look! Down on the ground! It’s a saxophonist! It’s a leader! And a teacher; an entrepre-neur; a pioneer and visionary, with the power to go where few musicians once dared. ” It’s Fred Anderson, now reborn as “Velvet Anderson” — a superhero for those who, in an age of conformity and techno-tampering, value the quest for real music. Anderson prized iconoclasm and freedom and the glory of creation. But he also embraced the mundane tasks associated with supporting these goals. So from the 1970s on, disguised as a mild-mannered barman, he owned and operated the world-famous Velvet Lounge: working-class tavern by day, nexus of Chicago’s free-jazz universe by night. Although no one previously thought to portray him as such, “superhero” comes awfully close to catching the essence of Anderson, whose death in 2010 left a void that the city still strives to fill.
Nicole Mitchell rightly describes the Velvet Lounge as “a stellar environment for the development of creative music in Chicago,” and Anderson as having provided “support, encouragement, and inspiration to countless musicians for generations, while garnering an international audience for the music. . . . He was a quiet man who rarely shared his ongoing struggles with the city and with local gangsters to keep things running. ‘The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson’ likens Fred Anderson to a superhero, whose humble exterior masked his real-life heroic trials and trib-ulations beyond the public ‘s awareness. ” (The club was so much a part of Anderson — and he so much a part of it — that it really was his “alter ego”; no wonder Mitchell made it a part of his superhero persona.) “The album is an animated illustration to further deepen the public’s impression of a real-life hero of Chicago, who walked with us and fought for us. I wanted to make Fred smile, to think that in this animation he can be a secret agent working against forces of musical demise. ” In this recording, follow the hero-agent “Velvet Anderson” as surveys his city, accepts his assignment and, true to his cause and calling, returns the treasure to where it belongs, escaping via sewers, rooftops, labyrinths — whatever it takes.
Few people are as qualified as Nicole Mitchell, either artistically or personally, to speak authoritatively about Fred Anderson. The saxophonist mentored or encouraged scores of younger players, many of whom have achieved their own fame and influence; these include drummer Hamid Drake, bassist Tatsu Aoki, pianist Jim Baker, guitarist Jeff Parker, and saxists Douglas Ewart, Chico Freeman, and Ken Vander-mark. But from the time she emerged as a soloist and then a bandleader in her own right, Mitchell had an especially strong relationship with the Anderson. He is her musical father-figure, and it should surprise no one that she would come up with a project this deeply-felt, audacious, or exhilarating.
Those of us who saw him perform — soloing out of a deep crouch once described as that of a cosmic sumo wrestler, hunkered down to battle with Fate — can attest to the heroic nature of his music. And those familiar with Mitchell won’t be entirely surprised at her re-invention of Anderson as an action figure. Mitchell has previously channeled such flights of fancy (and even fights of fantasy). She finds inspiration for many of her compositions in subjects both supernatural and extraterrestrial, and she based her extraordinary 2008 album Xenogensis Suite entirely, and quite literally, on the work of acclaimed science-fiction author Octavia Butler. For that matter, Mitchell would qualify as good superhero material herself. Unprepossessing in conversation, light and even girlish in mien, she transforms when she picks up the flute; in her hands, it might as well be Thor’s hammer or Wonder Woman’s lasso, and she wields it with comparably astounding feats of strength and agility.
Her collaborators bring an equal sense of purpose to this album. Mitchell sees Sonic Projections — a bass-less quartet that arose from a 2009 concert — as a bridge connecting some of her favorite musicians from Chicago and New York. (She moved from Chicago to California, where she grew up, in 2011.) Sonic Projections issued their debut disc, Emerald Hills, in 2010; in the years since, Craig Taborn has seen one stunning success after another, culminating (to this point) in his widely acclaimed 2013 album Chants, which finished second to only Wayne Shorter in the 2013 NPR Jazz Critics Poll. Taborn, a New Yorker since 1995, played occasionally at the Velvet Lounge; the Chicago-bred Chad Taylor and David Boykin played there often, and frequently with Anderson himself. Each has grown into a suitably distinctive artist in his own right. The drummer, who now lives in New York, is best known for his electro-acoustic “Chicago Underground” collaborations with cornetist Rob Mazurek. And the saxophonist — whose main vehicle, the David Boykin Expanse, incorporates rock and rap — presents an illuminating take on Ander-son’s mentorship. At full tilt, his tone has a grittier edge than Anderson’s; in quieter passages, he floats and whispers (where “Baba Fred” wheeled and brooded). But in creating a distinctly identifiable sound and style within the post-freedom format, Boykin exemplifies Anderson’s lifelong journey.
Back in the day, the words “faster than a speeding bullet” introduced us to the world of Superman. There’s a different catch-phrase now, associated with the most successful superhero of the current era, Spider-Man, who bears the cross of his late uncle’s wise words: “With great power comes great responsi-bility.” Fred Anderson (who as far as I know never read The Amazing Spider-Man) realized this; the most gifted of his protégés, including the musicians on this album, know it too. Their commitment to making such bold and powerful music — and to its impactful importance in a world so desperately in need of such music — would surely make “Velvet Anderson” proud. — Neil Tosser
Nicole Mitchell’s Sonic Projections: Nicole Mitchell, Craig Taborn, Chad Taylor, David Boykin. Los Angeles, January 2013. Photo by Griffin Rodriguez
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