Now's the time

Wynton Marsalis sideman Wessell Anderson is Leaning House's best hope to make some noise

Not too long ago, Wessell Anderson sat in the Atlantic Records offices and heard his A&R person remind him, over and over, how lucky the young alto sax player was to be signed to the label. After all, this man reminded Anderson, Atlantic has a proud and revered history in the world of jazz. John Coltrane recorded for Atlantic. So did Charles Mingus, Ray Charles, the Modern Jazz Quartet, even Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. And for a while, Anderson liked what he heard--tales of men he admired as a child, emulated as a young man, aspired to be like when he became his own man. Who among his peers would not kill to be linked by label and lineage to Coltrane and Mingus and Monk, men whose names and notes define post-war jazz, who remain gods among the virtuous and faithful? Atlantic was almost a shrine.

But Anderson knew, deep down, his tenure with the label would not last long. Maybe it had something to do with the moment this same label executive pointed to two pictures on his wall and asked Anderson, "Do you know who those men are?" Hell, yes, Anderson knew--they were John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Anderson recalls sitting in that room and wondering just where in the hell this guy had been during their entire conversation. Did he really think that Anderson--a musician almost from birth, the son of a member of sax legend Sonny Stitt's rhythm section, and part of Wynton Marsalis' touring and recording ensemble since 1988--had no idea who those men were?

"It makes you feel like an idiot," Anderson recalls now, chuckling just slightly, almost sadly, as he recalls this story. "But you sign to a major label, and they want you to feel like they found you. I've been out there playing 10 years with Wynton. You kidding? So you gotta smile in people's faces, even if they don't know what they're talking about."

In the end, Anderson released two discs on Atlantic--1994's Warmdaddy in the Garden of Swing, and Ways of Warmdaddy two years later. Both are deep records that cut through a listener like fast-moving water through the softest of land. They drip with Southern soul and Northern cool, as Anderson cuts his skittering bebop with silk-soft blues. During an era when so many Young Turks try to define themselves by mimicking the voices of dead heroes, Anderson screamed and soothed like no one else around him. This kid--no, this man--played like a veteran and wrote like a mother. Little wonder, then, his records made myriad jazz critics' year-end top-10 lists; little wonder Marsalis made him an integral part of his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and features him prominently on such albums as Blue Interlude and the classic In This House, On This Morning.

So how in God's name did Wessell Anderson--who has also appeared on albums by Branford Marsalis, Ruth Brown, and the New Orleans Collective--come to release his third album, Live at the Village Vanguard, on the Dallas-based Leaning House Records, a label that's barely solvent five years into its blessed existence? How did Wynton Marsalis' alto sax player come to sign on (for two records, no less) with Mark Elliott and Keith Foerster, two Thomas Jefferson High School and S.M.U. graduates in their late 20s who began their label by recording ignored local heroes such as tenor sax player Marchel Ivery and drummer Earl Harvin and hoped at first only to make enough money to release a second record, then, maybe, a third?

The answer, perhaps, is not so shocking: Anderson, tired of the "corporate bullshit" at Atlantic, simply wanted to make music for a label run by people who cared less about the business of music and more about the art of music. To him, size didn't matter; he had already been swallowed up by a major, then spit out and forgotten. Better, perhaps, to sign to a tiny independent--at least there he could find a home with his own room. And so, on September 1, Leaning House will release Wessell Anderson's Live at the Village Vanguard--most certainly the highest-profile album among the label's eight jazz releases, and the one that could well determine the tiny label's fate.

"Hey, no one was more surprised than me," says Elliott, who has produced all of Leaning House's albums. "But I think that the main reason he decided to do it was that he liked the way we operate, and he's coming off of a situation with Atlantic he was unhappy with. Although we don't have their muscle, we definitely take a lot of care in making records. And he's such a great person to work with, because he's so upbeat and positive and realistic about his expectations."

Anderson first met Elliott and Foerster in Austin last year, during a record-release party for pianist Fred Hamilton's East of Vilbig. Anderson was supposed to guest on Hamilton's disc, but didn't have the time because of his Lincoln Center and Marsalis obligations, so he thought he would at least play the release gig as a favor. There, he noticed Elliott and Foerster in the back of the room, selling discs, staying out of the way; Anderson was suitably impressed. He met the duo again last December, when the Leaning House boys took drummer-composer Donald Edwards to Kingsway Studios in New Orleans to record Edwards' In the Vernacular, which featured Anderson and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who won a Grammy for his album with the late, very great Adolphus "Doc" Cheatam.

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