Jazz Album of the Week: Clifton Anderson's Urgently Hopeful Message In "Been Down This Road Before"
February 8, 2021. Trombonist Clifton Anderson calls his fourth and latest album as a leader Been Down This Road Before. At this moment in history, it’s a provocative title. But even more evocative—of promises broken, of dreams deferred, of spiritual exhaustion, and a vacancy of trust borne from generations of structural inequities and disparities of opportunity that persist to this day.
Why should the contemporary “national conversation” on these issues lead to more meaningful progress than those before it? It’s a valid question to examine through art of any medium right now, especially music. Yet this is not the cynical album it initially appears to be. Actually, it presents as surprisingly, defiantly, and urgently…hopeful.
Just listen to Anderson’s “Mission Statement,” the album’s opener; what you’ll hear is the furthest thing from exasperated resignation. Rarely outside of guys like J.J. Johnson, Curtis Fuller, and Steve Turre do you hear trombonists sing through the instrument this ardently, this affirmatively. Anderson’s is a declarative rebuke of those who say the trombone isn’t a lead instrument.
The combined authority and musicality of Anderson’s melodic hook is textbook hard bop, laying a foundation for solos that are muscular, playful and revelatory of what improvisation sounds like when informed by history. Just take Anderson’s knowing nod to his uncle Sonny just shy of the three-minute mark, when, mid-solo, he riffs on “Without a Song.”
Uncle Sonny is, of course, the saxophone colossus himself, Sonny Rollins. Rollins is younger brother to Anderson’s mother, and Anderson has recorded, toured, and produced for his uncle Sonny since 1983. So there’s no mistaking from where his Rollins influence derives.
The sidemen here also bring the gravitas you’d expect of names on a Rollins album. Yes, that was Buster Williams playing bass on the opener; he plays on seven of 10 cuts. Industry giants Al Foster, Ronnie Burrage, and Steve Jordan split time on drums, and one A-lister or another seems to feature on every cut—from the venerable vocalist Andy Bey to Peter Bernstein (guitar), Antoine Roney (Wallace’s brother, on saxophone), Monty Alexander (piano), and Sammy Figueroa (congas).
If the names get you to pick up the album, though, it’s the music that will compel you to keep the record spinning.
Roney and Anderson play a two-man game, a jazzy pick-and-pop, on “Nana-D,” where the rhythm section of Williams, Foster, Stephen Scott (piano) and Victor See Yuen (percussion) very elegantly use Latin rhythms to amplify the soloists’ statements before deftly pulling back. Listen closely to Williams, specifically; this man has still got it.
Elsewhere, Anderson breaks out the didgeridoo to summon the gods of epochs past on “Mysticancients,” and the yoga class vibes spill over into “In It But Not of It”—that is until Foster, Yuen, Scott and Roney, trading his tenor for a soprano sax here, kick things into overdrive with the musical equivalent of high-intensity interval training.
With the family history already out of the way, there’s no mystery as to whom “Sonny Says” is referring. Again, Williams drives so much of the action forward; his metronome-like steadiness is the lynchpin here, allowing Anderson to quote Charlie Parker heads with academic intent and Renee McLean (tenor sax) to shine in technicolor and do justice to Sonny Rollins’ commanding voice. Combining Williams’ stately presence with the history lesson Anderson weaves through the composition, one could almost center an entire semester of jazz musicology around this one tune.
Alexander and Figueroa join on “T.U.B.C.,” perhaps the most epic-in-scope of Anderson’s originals here. It is astounding how clean and focused a tone Anderson produces. He makes it seem easy, but it is, indeed, rare. The two-man game between Anderson and Roney is, again, run to perfection, laying the groundwork for a Monk-like solo from Alexander. And make sure not to dip on this one prematurely; Roney, switching to soprano sax, and Anderson combine for a moving epilogue.
Anderson’s take on Bacharach and David’s “A House is Not a Home” presents another opportunity for the type of tear-shedding all should practice in the name of diligent emotional maintenance. Jukebox Jazz and Ryan Gottlieb, are you listening?
The pièce de résistance, however, is the title track. It opens with an elegant trombone/guitar preface from Anderson and Bernstein that gives way to Bey backed by Fender Rhodes. It’s a detour into R&B from what is otherwise a straight-ahead album, but it’s the perfect delivery system for a moral-of-the-story type of message.
“I heard some old folks tell the story about the way things used to be. It sounded like they were describing the world today, so sad to say,” Bey sings. “I know for sure it’s time to close the door, and if not now, then who knows where or when?”
Of all the big names here, there’s no more credible messenger than Bey. What the ultimate message is, however, isn’t easy to discern.
It’s difficult to reconcile the paradox of the album’s ostensibly cynical title and the stubbornly hopeful music one discovers within. Maybe the apparent ambivalence is the point, though, a subtle but astute commentary on the ever-present conflict between cynicism and hope in all of us, the hallmark of the modern condition.