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.

Anderson says he loved watching Elliott produce, the way he helped Edwards come up with a list of songs to perform, suggesting and coaxing without every insisting. Anderson saw that Elliott was a pure jazz fan, a cheerleader and ringleader wrapped in the body of a kid from Dallas who wants to turn his little label into a version of Blue Note, circa 1956.

"We were talking like musical buddies," Anderson recalls. "With Mark, it's like talking to another musician. It's like somebody cool, somebody you can talk to. So jokingly, I told them I would like to join the label. And he said, 'Yeah?' and I said, 'Yeah.' I went home, and I said, 'They ain't gonna call me. They're just starting out.' Then they called me two days later, and Mark said, 'Are you serious?' And we started talking from there.

"I asked Mark to send me the records they had released. I heard everything, and it let me know what the record label's direction was. I heard Marchel and Earl, and I thought, 'They got some cats who can play.' I asked Donald, 'How do you feel about them?' and he said, 'Yeah, definitely.' I liked the way Mark and Keith worked together. It was like the way Rudy Van Gelder and Francis Wolff and the people at Blue Note worked together. They let the artist do what they needed to do without getting in the way."

To tell the truth, Wessell Anderson does not need Elliott and Foerster--not as much as they need him. The man known as Wess to his friends and "Warmdaddy" to his fans, the man who began playing piano when he was 13 and switched to saxophone when he first heard Charlie Parker, does not need to associate his name with a tiny jazz label operating out of a house off Lower Greenville that slants so noticeably, you couldn't even level it with a bulldozer. He does not need to lend his reputation (and risk his credibility) to a record label run by two men whose idea of a bet is giving two-to-one odds on who will go broke first. Wessell Anderson has friends in very high places.

But during its five years of existence, Leaning House has released seven of the finest jazz albums of the 1990s. Labels such as Verve or even Blue Note would be hard-pressed to top Marchel's Mode or Earl Harvin Trio/Quartet or Shelley Carroll with Members of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The roster of artists who are either signed to the label (for short-term contracts, the mark of true indie sincerity) or have recorded for Leaning House is remarkable: Marchel Ivery's two discs feature no less than former John Coltrane pianist Cedar Walton and organist Joey DeFrancesco, who appeared on Miles Davis' 1989 Amandla; Fred Sanders' 1997 album East of Vilbig features Arts Magnet grad Roy Hargrove among its grooves; and Edwards' recently released In the Vernacular features Anderson and guitarist Mark Whitfield, who has six discs on Warner Bros. and Verve to his credit, and appears all over the Kansas City soundtrack.

Yet the label has existed almost despite itself, releasing album after album while the money trickles in, enough to pay the bills and finance the next project--if Elliott and Foerster are lucky, that is. That Leaning House is even still standing after all these years is no astonishing task: When major-label jazz releases make up a tiny, almost insignificant percentage of all records sold in this country each year, an indie such as Leaning House should have long ago collapsed and been razed to make way for a parking lot.

The biggest-seller on the label is Ivery's Marchel's Mode; it has moved about 2,500 copies since its release in 1995. Edwards' disc has sold less than half that, about 1,000 copies, though it has only been in stores since May. Such sales figures will hardly turn Leaning House into a mansion on the hill. Already, the label's distributor, the Portland-based Allegro, has considered getting out of its deal with Leaning House, which would jeopardize its already tenuous future. Elliott readily admits that Allegro will keep a close watch on how Anderson's record sells. Yet Leaning House hangs on because of Elliott and Foerster's tenacity and the roster's remarkable talent.

"I don't have necessarily wild expectations about Wess' record," Elliott says. "I definitely think it's got the potential to sell more than anything else on the label, but this is a meaningful record on a lot of levels. It was the hardest to make from the very beginning to the very end--it has not been a smooth ride. It's the biggest artist we've signed. It's at a time when our relationship with our distributor is critical. So it's pretty important, no doubt about it. But I feel like we're getting to a difficult position, because there are some other artists out there we could possibly sign now who are of a similar caliber to Wess, but we don't have the money to do it. And believe it or not, the roster is getting to the point where it's getting difficult to manage. You're either going to take it to the next level or not. We need money--money brings a lot of other things."

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.

Anderson's record could well be the boost Leaning House needs if it's going to continue to exist: Already, advance orders for the disc sit at about 1,300 copies--far more than any previous Leaning House release. And for the first time, Elliott and Foerster have hired an outside publicist to promote the record, and they've made promotion discs to send to radio and retail. Leaning House has even taken out an ad for the disc in the Chicago Reader during that city's forthcoming jazz festival--and Anderson isn't even performing.

"A record like Wess' keeps me going, because I feel like this is where we need to be at this point," Elliott says. "I understand this can't go on forever if there's no money coming in, but it's great to be in a position to be able to put out a record like this. At some point, either the money will run dry or the sense of fulfillment will, and it will make sense to stop. I don't know which is going to dry up first, but in the meantime it's great to have this one on the books.

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