A carnival of sounds and a world of imagination

Boston Globe, MA
Aug 10 2007

A carnival of sounds and a world of imagination

Ara Anderson showcases his eclectic repertoire
By Andrew Gilbert, Globe Correspondent | August 10, 2007

In the wonderfully strange musical world of Ara Anderson, the circus
is always in town.

Though recently featured in Down Beat magazine as one of "25 jazz
trumpeters for the future," Anderson has crafted an intricate, wildly
imaginative repertoire influenced more by contemporary classical
music and carnival tunes than bebop. Seamlessly blending written and
improvised passages, he creates evocative instrumental soundscapes
inspired by an esoteric realm of imagery. (He cites "tiny clocks,
Scandinavian seascapes, sailing vessels set adrift, and
handlebar-mustached acrobats thrown and airborne" as some of his

Anderson makes his Boston-area debut as a leader tomorrow night with
his quartet, Iron & the Albatross, at T.T. the Bear’s. He’s the
opening act on a four-band bill that includes HUMANWINE, Mucca Pazza,
and the latest incarnation of Brian Carpenter’s Beat Circus, an
ensemble that shares Anderson’s passion for unusual instrumentation
and mythic themes that hearken back to an era before electronic

Actually, Anderson shares more than a carnivalesque aesthetic with
Beat Circus. On Anderson’s East Coast tour, both bands include Slavic
Soul Party’s Ron Caswell on tuba and Mr. Bungle drummer Ches Smith.
Rounding out the Iron ensemble is Claudia Quintet’s Ted Reichman on
accordion, while Anderson moves between trumpet and a glockenspiel he
found on eBay.

"Everything that contributed to the Iron & the Albatross recording
had a storybook focus," says Anderson at the Jazzschool in downtown
Berkeley, Calif. Wearing a knit cap, horn-rimmed glasses, and a
threadbare black coat, he speaks softly, often pausing a beat or two
to weigh his words. "I wanted to be able to present a collection of
work that not only addressed different approaches on a technical
level, but could translate as a story, an extra-musical idea. I
wanted to approach it like when you listen to somebody speak a
language you don’t know, but you can appreciate it on a phonetic and
rhythmic level."

Rather than using chord changes as a road map for blowing, Anderson
prefers to let mood and imagery set the course. His compositions are
full of whimsical twists and turns, odd meters, and lapidary textures
that can feel like watching a summer rainstorm through a window. But
even at its most unfettered, a deep vein of sadness runs through his
music, as if he’s mourning the loss of the worlds conjured by his
tunes. There’s an unmistakable jazz sensibility at work, but it’s
filtered through an approach that blends a chamber quartet’s dynamic
control with a busker’s crowd-pleasing imperative.

"The compositions inform and provoke the attitude of the band for
solos," Anderson says. "We try to get away from anything involving
bebop or swing."

Even though Anderson, 33, has performed only once before in the
Boston area (with the band OK Go), he has significant familial ties
to the region. His father, a trombonist, earned a degree in jazz
composition from the Berklee College of Music in the early 1970s. His
mother, a Syrian-born Armenian whose family had moved to
Massachusetts, was working in the Berklee library when they met.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Anderson has played widely around
Northern California as the leader of several bands, including
Boostamonte!, an eight-piece brass ensemble. On his 2004
self-produced album, "Iron & the Albatross," he displays his full
instrumental arsenal, playing pump organ, glockenspiel, piano,
percussion, and baritone horn. In many ways it was his work with Tom
Waits, who featured him extensively on the albums "Blood Money" and
"Alice," that led Anderson to start composing music incorporating his
multi-instrumental skills.

"It definitely changed my writing," Anderson said. "I started using
the pump organ and concentrating on acoustic settings. Everything
I’ve added to my collection has expanded my whole perspective,
especially instruments in totally different families. Listening to
tuba parts really broadens your idea of how bass can function in the

His far-flung sonic palette came in handy during his years writing
scores for productions by the Pickle Family Circus and the
avant-garde theater group Killing My Lobster. As a performer,
Anderson is probably best known for his recent work with Tin Hat
(formerly Tin Hat Trio). The chamber-jazz ensemble invited him to
join the band last year with his instrumental menagerie. He
contributed several tunes and exquisite textural colors on the recent
album "The Sad Machinery of Spring" (Hannibal), which was inspired by
the writing of Polish Jewish artist Bruno Schulz, who was killed by
the Nazis during World War II.

"Ara is one of the most natural musicians I’ve ever met," says Tin
Hat clarinetist Ben Goldberg, a seminal improviser since the late
1980s, when his band New Klezmer Trio paved the way for John Zorn’s
Masada projects. "He has an unshakeable groove, but not in the sense
of being relentless or dominating. In Tin Hat, he can play kitchen
utensils, or literally take a piece of paper and tear it in rhythm.
He’s not trying to prove something or establish his virtuosity. He’s
right there next to the music, right next to the unknown."