Ray Anderson is the most talked-about performer in a sparsely populated field. His apparent aim is to play the trombone higher, lower and wilder than anyone else, and to bring together the past, present and future of the horn in one fell swoop. For his efforts he has earned critical praise and has won the last four Down Beat polls.
At 38, the Chicago-born Anderson has worked on avant-garde gigs with Henry Threadgill, led a jazz/rock/fusion band called the Slickaphonics that enjoyed success in Europe, played rhythm-and-blues and Latin dates around New York, and more recently has led an all-purpose quartet that has recorded for Gramavision.
If his playing is outrageous, he has a personality to match it. When he speaks, he is Harry Belafonte crossed with the Godfather. When he sings, he is apt to break out into multiphonic effects that suggest two Louis Armstrongs. His tall, gangling visual image has reminded some observers of a 1940s-style hipster.
Currently on his first visit to the Southland as a leader, he played Monday and Tuesday at Elario’s in La Jolla; tonight he will be at Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood and Thursday at the Biltmore Hotel’s Grand Ave. Bar.
Anderson’s bizarre technique both vocally and on the horn would seem to have been self-taught. “I was the lead vocalist with the Slickaphonics,” he recalls, “and I developed this strange double sound. A singing coach told me my vocal cords were vibrating to produce one note while the skin outside the larynx vibrated to produce a second. She said it was an incorrect technique, and I should never do it again.” He has been using it, of course, ever since.
Like so many American jazz artists, Anderson has enjoyed more success abroad than at home. He’s been the subject of many feature stories in European jazz magazines. Japan, typically, has put out the welcome mat. “I’ve been there a half-dozen times, with various people, and just got back from there this weekend.”
He is not entirely a prophet without domestic honor. True, his Slickaphonic sessions were made for European consumption; most were unreleased here. However, his more recent albums for Enja and currently for Gramavision have been earning five-star ratings, and he has accumulated a pile of laudatory clippings hailing his appearances at New York’s Village Vangarde.
His best-known album, “What Because,” showcased him with what was then his regular touring band. At present he has to assemble a group when enough work opportunities arise. “There just aren’t enough jobs for me to hold a band together. I look forward to the time when I won’t have to rehearse a new personnel for every few gigs. But I’m happy with the people I have right now.” (Pianist Amina Claudine Myers is a recording artist for RCA, bassist Mark Helias also has recorded as a leader, and drummer Dion Parsons on drums completes the quartet.)
Although the appearance went by almost unnoticed, he was at Catalina’s a couple of years ago as a sideman with the International Orchestra led by the Swiss composer George Gruntz. Playing in a brass section, however, is his idea of nothing to do: “You just sit there a whole evening and get to play one solo. It might be fun to have a big band of my own someday, but what I’m doing right now is what I really want to do--be in charge and play what I like.”
Proving his point, Anderson then took to the bandstand and, after a few explosive warm-up noises, went into a long series of uproarious cadenzas, growling and trilling, reaching for notes beyond the blue horizon, plunging to the depths, and then, after a premonitory vamp, easing his group into a buoyant chorus of a mainstream standard, Duke Ellington’s “In a Mellotone.” The Anderson phenomenon was off and cooking.