dvd review: Timeless Fred Anderson – Harrison Bankhead – Hamid Drake Live at the Velvet Lounge

© Laurence Svirchev

There once was a time when seeing and hearing jazz at the same time meant being in a club or concert hall. Sure, there was the occasional movie with a hokey plot line containing brief and highly stereo-typed club scenes. And there were sporadic television variety shows with a jazz group playing a composition slotted between a juggler and a card-shark. Those rare television shows featuring jazz had announcers explaining the music via voice-overs, distinguished men who frequently demonstrated their ignorance of the genre by mispronouncing unfamiliar but perfectly phonetic names like “Thelonious Sphere Monk.”

The one American TV show that did justice to the art form of jazz was The Sound of Jazz, recorded in 1957 in the old CBS Studio 52. It treated the music and the musicians with an unusual respect, even though Mike Wallace did stumble over the names of some of the musicians. It featured old flames Billie Holiday and Lester Young on “Fine and Mellow,” the Count Basie Orchestra swinging “Dickie’s Dream” with solos by Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge, and Jimmy Giuffre with Jim Hall on “The Train and the River.” The Sound of Jazz is available on a rather shoddy-looking DVD, and one can only wish that Sony would re-issue a proper version of the original.

Fast-forward to the digital era, where it is easy work to set up a sympathetic lighting system and record with a few hand-held, image-stabilized, digital video units. That is how Timeless was recorded in Chicago’s Velvet Lounge, with Fred Anderson (tenor saxophone), Harrison Bankhead (bass), and Hamid Drake (drum kit and frame drum). Timeless is straight out of the genealogy of the best of jazz film spawned by The Sound of Jazz. That proto-type was originally a gorgeous black and white, analog studio recording, while Timeless is color, recorded at 24 bit/96kHz audio, and digi-cammed in a club.

What ties the two sessions together is the effective simplicity of the camera work that visually captures the communication and the creative élan among the musicians. The styles of  Hawkins and Young are different than that of Fred Anderson, but that is expected not discounted, in an art form in which one generation of giants knowingly and without a trace of guile builds on the edifices that their forebears constructed.

As seen by Timeless’ testimony, the old Velvet Lounge at 2821½ S. Indiana was a beautiful, simply-designed club that encouraged listening. Photos covered some of the walls. On others hung a painting of the Prince of Darkness from his electric period. The stage was a low bed with the bar located stage-left. There were padded folding chairs and tables – to stage-right was a clock with a second-hand sweep advertising Coors beer. The background to the stage was wallpaper of vertically – banded horizontal stripes in muted reds, aquamarines and yellows, with red flower patterns  –  a welcome relief from black curtains.

 To the rear of Hamid Drake was a fire extinguisher, the certification tag indicating it was ready for use. Hamid Drake’s drumming never requires extinguishing, for his fire is of a spiritual sort. Above Fred Anderson’s head, one could see the gas meter, an accoutrement  with no relation to the story-telling wind that Anderson blew.

 For the recording, the Velvet Lounge was rigged with full-spectrum lighting that properly brought out the tones of the metal and wood instruments, the finely patterned hat and shirts of Drake, and Bankhead’s woven, white three-quarter length robe and black and white shamanesque lid. Thanks to the  full-spectrum lighting, the skin tone of the musicians is also correct.

There were no post-concert video-layers added to this DVD, nothing to detract from the music  and the visuals. But there are camera angles that draw the listener/viewer into the music. For example, the camera zooms in on one of Drake’s ride cymbals and lingers there as the stick shimmers the metal. That shot is intimate, for it transports the eye directly to the sound source. The same can be said of the close-up that stays focused on Bankhead’s right hand as it plucks the strings as well as the close-up of the bell of saxophone. The eye can imagine the unseen air projecting as the camera pulls away to reveal the bore of the horn and then Anderson’s hands manipulating the keys, his wristwatch reading 11:30. (not a.m. we presume)

This is a music that runs deep, a music in which three spirits chant dances but dances that defy conventions of choreography. Anderson, Bankhead, and Drake are like a weather system: winds change direction without notice, clouds amalgamate into distinctive patterns that then devolve into open-vista blue sky or completely new formations. Within the flux of such improvisation, Anderson, Bankhead, and Drake play a music that is coherent, a music of trio consonance. Misterioso predicts that whether you play this as a video, or leave the visuals off and just hear the music, the groove, depth of emotion, and the musicianship will keep you coming back to Timeless for a long time. This DVD is a keeper.

First publication May 2007

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