Now's the time

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

Making Live at the Village Vanguard was fraught with near-disaster from the get-go, when the recording equipment showed up late--and then, some of it didn't work. The idea of recording at the Vanguard--the legendary Manhattan jazz outpost where no less than Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Earl "Fatha" Hines have recorded their own in-concert albums--was Anderson's. He told Elliott that because of his tight schedule, he wouldn't be able to take a band into the studio till either later this year or well into 1999. It was either now or never, and because Anderson's band was already booked to play the Vanguard at the end of May, it seemed logical to cut the disc then. But there were other problems too: trying to deal with Anderson's selection of songs, some of which ran longer than expected, and placating the club's intractable owner, Lorraine Gordon. (Elliott says Marsalis was even going to appear on at least one cut and showed up to play with Anderson, but left the Vanguard after having a run-in with Gordon about God-knows-what.)

The resulting album was culled from three different shows recorded on May 30, and it's Leaning House's finest disc yet. It begins almost as a lark, with Anderson leading his band through his giddy "African Cowboy," which begins like some cowboy-movie overture and then suddenly, unnoticeably, inexplicably evolves into a hard-bop throwdown without ever losing shape or sense. Irvin Mayfield, on muted trumpet, plays his horn like Louis Armstrong on horseback down Bourbon Street; and the rhythm section--pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Steve Kirby, and pianist Jaz Sawyer--keeps pace, runs amok, and leads the charge.

Then they follow it up with the standard "Now's the Time," sounding not at all like a quintet. They fill up as much space as any big band, bursting the club at its ancient seams. The disc, which features liner notes from jazz critic and Marsalis comrade Stanley Crouch, is loaded with such standard-time moments--"Dis Here," "I'll Remember April," and "Soul Eyes" among them. But Anderson's compositions are the disc's real centerpieces: "Snake Charmer," which features Anderson on the sopranino sax, is sly, slinky, Middle Eastern funk and fury; and "Quick Skeem" recalls those days when Coltrane and Miles Davis used to duel on the Vanguard stage till only the audience was left standing.

"Believe me, I was nervous," says Anderson about playing the Vanguard and recording there. "I was nervous about how well the musicians were going to do under the pressure. I said, 'Don't even think about the club.' And they pulled it off. I just wanted to make sure I did all the tunes right. I mean, this is the Vanguard, and if you look around you from the stage, you see pictures of Monk and Coltrane and Elvin Jones and Hank Crawford. It keeps you on your toes. The adrenaline's going. It's either going to be the best performance of your life or the worst.

"But making a record live is the best environment. I mean, when you hear [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue, it's memorable, but it sounds like a studio recording. When you hear Charlie Parker at the Royal Roost, there's an energy there. Live music is a quick photocopy. It's like a Polaroid. There's nothing like it. The picture's not as clear on the Polaroid, but you get the excitement of seeing it right there. I've waited for years to do this."

As has Elliott--Vanguard was his first live recording, and he decided he liked it enough to try again with Earl Harvin's band, which he recorded last month at the Gypsy Tea Room in Deep Ellum. But Elliott does not know when Harvin's disc will be released--most likely, he says, that will happen next year. But he shrugs when he says it. It all depends on how well Anderson's album does, how much money it makes, and whether Allegro decides it has enough faith in Leaning House to stick with it.

Anderson says he is well aware of the fact that he is Leaning House's most recognized artist. He also knows how much the label has riding on his disc--certainly, with a steady gig with Marsalis and Lincoln Center, where he also teaches young would-be jazzers about the history of the music, Anderson's future is well secured for the time being. Indeed, just last week, he flew to New York to record, with Marsalis, the soundtrack for a forthcoming made-for-HBO documentary about Jackie Robinson.

But never once did Anderson remind Elliott of his status; never once did the artist tell the producer he would walk out if things didn't go his way. Rather, Anderson says, "we were like kids who are really into it, who said, 'Let's play football in the street--so what if it's raining?'"

The disc reflects that--it's a joy to listen to, beautiful and complex and overcome with a sense of kicking history toward the future. It would be a shame if Leaning House didn't exist past next year or the next decade. It's certainly the finest, most tenacious label ever to make its home in this city. Anybody can get lucky and perhaps even a little rich mining for fool's gold in the rock-and-roll world. But to risk everything by recording jazz? Without a doubt, there is great nobility wrapped beneath such an insane notion.

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