I attended a June 29 "CD Release Party" for Duets 2001 at the Velvet Lounge, Fred Anderson's South Side Chicago club. Robert Barry and Anderson both performed and were solid but the real star of the night was the bassist Harrison Bankhead, the third member of the trio, who made it seem like his two hands were controlled by different but complimentary musical minds. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand with each and every solo that he did.
Duets 2001 features quite different music as the material here is the product of a duo in every sense of the word. Even some of the best sax and drum discs tend to sound like they come from a trio without a third member but this disc uses the possibilities created by a duo to the fullest. Both Anderson and Barry deliver details that listeners might miss if there was greater instrumentation.
That Duets 2001 is a true duo disc only means that the title is 50% accurate. The music was in fact recorded on May 22, 1999 according to the booklet notes, which also feature Barry and Anderson reminiscing about their careers, each other, and music in general. The booklet and jewel box are adorned with beautiful pictures of Barry and Anderson sitting in the unmistakable decor of the Velvet Lounge but the photos only add more confusion since, again the booklet notes, the music was recorded in concert at the Empty Bottle, another great Chicago venue. In addition to the still popular compact disc format, Thrill Jockey has release Duets 2001 as an LP and a copy of the record is worth picking up if only for decorative purposes. One nevertheless cringes at how the label is in a way slightly misleading music lovers with these pictures and the title. All of this might only slightly take away from the music but that is a discount that didn't and shouldn't have happened at all.
Best known for playing with Sun Ra and then Ken Vandermark on 1999's Design in Time, Barry has minimalist style that might be simple for its own good. He taps, pokes, and might even prod the kit into basic rhythms that many a musician could perform but which fit each and every occasion like a glove.
Anderson, of course, deserves his share of credit for the music. The 72-year-old Chicago tenorist has with a number of drummers in recent years like Hamid Drake, Chad Taylor, and even Vincent Davis who are far more dynamic than Barry and yet the saxophonist never seems at a loss as to what to do. Loud blaring or the sweet playing that he is so good at would most likely demonstrate that the world desperately needs a disc featuring Anderson keeping his own company but both approaches would both fail to tend to the business at hand. Instead, the sly and introspective side of Anderson punches the time clock and goes to work around the edges of what Barry's playing with both instruments ending up being simultaneously highlighted. This means bold playing on tracks like "Off Blue" but on the other cuts that means Anderson creates a model of constraint like "Bouncing" which opens Duets 2001.
Far more than any other reedist from the Chicago avant-garde tradition, Anderson bases his playing on short and rapid fire riffs that he can dispense to get a jam going, serve as a model for lost improvisers, or to get out of a jam (pun intended). This isn't completely absent from Duets 2001 but it takes a backseat to looser or more freely formed playing that might be more common in this genre but which sounds new coming from Anderson.
The cumulative result is a fascinating slice of Anderson that doesn't usually show up in his performances. Barry deserves credit for bringing this out of Anderson and together the two have made Duets 2001 into one of the better discs to come out so far this year.