Sax in the City
A true Minnesota native, Dave Anderson learned to improvise musically in the middle of a snowstorm.
School was closing at noon because of the weather that day, but Cloquet High School band director Charlie Leibfried mentioned to a few of the kids in jazz band that they were welcome to stay.
“He told us, ‘Hey, if you want to stick around, we can talk about the blues,’” Anderson said, explaining that Leibfried showed them the chords and notes that make up the melancholic music. “There were enough of us there that we could improvise and play together. In the middle of a snowstorm. What a very northern Minnesota thing.”
Anderson, a jazz saxophonist and composer who recently released his third album, “Blue Innuendo” with a new band by the same name, got his start in music growing up in Cloquet.
He remembers hearing his brother’s jazz records when he was 11 or 12 years old and being hooked. For Anderson, jazz wasn’t just background music. He would sit in the basement and just listen to all the different sounds for hours.
“That big band jazz pulled me in,” said Anderson, naming bandleaders Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman as two early influences. “You get to hear your horn being played in a larger group with a little more structure (and) organization. I was lucky because then I knew how my instrument could sound, at a pretty young age.”
He added that his family was fairly musical, with his brother playing bass and guitar in band, his mother playing piano and his grandfather singing in the church choir at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.
Now 49 years old and living in New York City for the second time after a stint in Seattle, Anderson said he feels lucky that he stumbled upon jazz at that time in the early 1980s, when it wasn’t exactly mainstream music. He also feels lucky that Cloquet had the kind of music programs that gave him the opportunity to develop his interest and skills. He started with the school band program in middle school and kept going all the way through graduation.
“When I was in eighth grade, Gerry Lizotte started a big band (jazz) group, so from then all the way through high school there were jazz bands,” Anderson said. “I know it took extra effort for the band teachers to do that, but I’m very grateful for them.”
He credits other teachers too, including Eldon Galyen, who taught him seventh grade summer sax lessons, Steve Rantala who taught ninth grade band and Zane Gray, who taught 10th grade band.
Old clippings from the Pine Knot newspaper show that Anderson’s talent didn’t go unnoticed. One announcement that he had been selected to play alto sax for the 17-piece McDonald’s All Star High School Jazz Ensemble listed his many musical accomplishments — lead tenor in the All-State Jazz Band 1984-85, lead alto Twin Ports Honors Jazz Band, outstanding soloist at the UMD Jazz Festival 1984-85, to name a few — along with the fact that he could solve a Rubik’s Cube in under 40 seconds.
He spent the summer after his senior year traveling around the state with the McDonald’s Jazz Band, playing mainstream jazz, bop, swing, Dixie, blues and big band standards at 10 major music festivals across Minnesota and making friends with musicians he would play with in college and some who are still friends today.
It was fun and an eye opener.
“Living in a small town, you don’t know how you stack up,” he said. “This gave me the opportunity to audition and play with people outside Cloquet.”
The McJazz director, Dr. Ben (Dr. Frank Bencriscutto), would become Anderson’s mentor at the University of Minnesota.
Nor is his talent unappreciated now.
When he was living in Seattle, Anderson released his 2010 debut CD, “Dave Anderson Quartet ‒ Clarity,” featuring his working quartet (sax-piano-bass-drums) on a set of 10 modern songs including eight originals. “Clarity” was on the Jazzweek national jazz radio chart for two months, peaking in the top 25. It also garnered enthusiastic reviews. All About Jazz pronounced “Clarity” “a clear and convincing modern jazz masterpiece of a debut … a recording of exceptionally creative charts and marvelous musicianship.” Jazz Times designated the album “a master class in giving eight originals … complete make-overs harmonically, rhythmically and melodically.” Midwest Record complimented Anderson’s leadership of the band, noting that the saxophonist “knows how to lead, how to lay out and how to write catchy melodies with some meat on the bone.”
Anderson is modest when asked to describe his music, which he says has elements of swing and a lot of improvisation, “but not completely free.” It is instrumental, with Anderson’s saxophone providing the lead voice for most of the music, weaving in and out of the other sounds.
“Everyone is trying to sing in jazz, even the piano and bass,” he said. “They’re singing with what they’re improvising, with their instrument.”
“Hopefully it gives listeners something to hang on to,” he said.
Anderson followed up “Clarity” with a limited release of “Dave Anderson’s Trio Real,” which featured seven more originals plus songs by Coldplay and Dave Holland, with a pared down group of sax-bass-drums exploring the relationship of jazz and funk with Anderson playing all four primary members of the saxophone family: soprano, alto, tenor and baritone.
His new album, “Dave Anderson’s Blue Innuendo,” is his first with an organ, a Hammond B3 organ, to be exact.
“They (the Hammond organs) were basically built for church, but they ended up being part of black popular music in the south. The organist would play the bass parts with his left hand and feet. It was a big job,” he said. “It’s a classic format — not as common as big band — but a genre of its own.”
He explained that he had written several originals that he thought would sound good in a jazz organ group of sax, organ, guitar and drums.
“That was the impetus for this album,” he said in a phone interview April 1, the day the project launched.
After putting together nine more original compositions, Anderson set about choosing “Blue Innuendo” band members — the band has the same name as the album — carefully from around the New York jazz scene. He had played with organist Pat Bianchi, a current sideman of both Pat Martino and Lou Donaldson, on a gig at the since-closed Somethin’ Jazz Club. He had played with “uber-prominent” drummer Matt Wilson on an East Village jazz gig and “caught the incendiary guitar lines” of Tom Guarna at the 55 Bar, he explained in a press release, adding that all three rhythm section members had lent their talents to Grammy-nominated projects and were established band leaders in their own rights before joining forces for Blue Innuendo.
The album was released on LABEL1, a new imprint for music projects by Anderson. Special free extras will release with the album, including PDF sheet music for each of his nine album originals and a play-a-long track for the song “The Phantom” minus saxophone, via daveandersonjazz.com. The band will celebrate the new release with a special concert April 28 at Michiko Studios’ Main Stage location on Times Square.
Still, Anderson isn’t all-music, all-the-time either. He actually majored in psychology at UMD and then the main U.
“Music doesn’t have to be your whole life to get a lot out of music,” Anderson explained. “And I wanted to study other things.”
Now he works three days a week as a marketing consultant — there are challenges making money with music, he noted — so he’s had a career in both marketing and music on both coasts.
While it may feel like Anderson is completely removed from his northern roots, living in New York City and Seattle, he still makes time each summer to come home to the family’s cabin on Big Lake in Cloquet. His parents, Emmett and Kathy (Kathryn) Anderson have both passed away now, but he and his brother, Bob, still like to spend time at the cabin on “the Point” and catch up with friends.
Last August when he was in town, Anderson actually played at the Duluth Public Library in the North Shore Big Band with some friends. It was fun, he said, adding that he hadn’t performed in northern Minnesota in years.
His final comment in the interview was one of encouragement.
“Music is really rewarding,” Anderson said. “I feel it’s important to have it in schools, but it’s equally important for people to find outlets to play live after school. Without a band director and someone to organize it, that’s tough. I’ve met a lot of people who wish they’d kept up with it. I’m just glad I had the opportunities I had in Cloquet and that I’m still playing.
“Music is something people can do their whole lives.”
Visit daveandersonjazz.com to read Anderson’s blogs or find out more about his music, upcoming gigs and more. Copies of his new album, “Blue Innuendo,” are available on Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby.