"A lot of people get into making records before they're really ready. I wanted to have a clear idea as to how I was going to present myself," the trombonist Clifton Anderson explains about his maiden voyage, Landmarks. "Some of that had to do with my ability to play the instrument. I didn't rush into the recording studio because I wanted to project a personal sound on the instrument, so that when I did come out, people would hopefully be able to discern me right away.
"You see, the trombone is such a hard instrument to really produce a good sound on ? or what would be considered pretty to most people ? that a lot of listeners don't realize what it's truly capable of, except to express certain kinds of comic effects. And outside of Curtis Fuller and J.J. Johnson it really wasn't out there as a lead voice. So that was a concern of mine when I finally decided to do an album. I wanted people to accept the trombone as a serious solo instrument capable of real lyric expression, the way they did when Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden were in their prime. They both played melodies so beautifully, and you don't really hear trombonists do that much these days."
With his rich, burnished brass timbre, and an expressive vocal catch in the center of each note, trombonist Clifton Anderson projects a sound and musical personality all his own ? a singular harmonic sense and melodic focus that sometimes gets lost in the furious tidal washes of creativity coming from his musical mentor and colleague of the past decade-plus, the legendary Sonny Rollins. But Clifton Anderson is nobody's second banana.
"I always liked that tenor/trombone combo, going back to the Jazz Crusaders with Wilton Felder and Wayne Henderson, and Curtis Fuller with Trane. And the stuff Sonny and J.J. Johnson recorded for Blue Note has always been special to me. I think Sonny and I get a really special kind of thing happening soundwise in terms of the tone of the horns and the way we play off of each other and create harmonies ? like a big-band feel in a small group."
The fact that Sonny's older sister Gloria is Clifton's mother, certainly didn't hurt the young brass player in gaining entree to the saxophone colossus. "Sure," Anderson allows, "but that had nothing to do with keeping the gig. Believe it or not, he fired me soon after I first joined the band, so nothing was given to me. I was expected to sustain the highest level of musicianship, night after night. And there have been some nights where Sonny plays at such an incredible level, I've considered packing it in. But he's been very supportive, always encouraging me to improve and attain a distinctive voice."
Born on October 5, 1957, Clifton Anderson grew up surrounded by music. His father was a church organist, while his mother sang and played piano, and another uncle played violin. His uncle Sonny bought him his first trombone when he was seven, and right away young Clifton showed an inclination for the horn.
"Right from the start, people were impressed by the quality of the sound I could get from the horn, but I was just experimenting with a lot of things. But I always knew that I could play music." Clifton was also a fine tennis player, and his abilities in biology led his parents to encourage a career in medicine. But while attending the High School of Music and Art in New York City, Clifton was inspired by the high-level competition, and then he heard J.J. Plays Broadway. "I realized all I'd been doing was fooling around, and that I had a lot to learn. Then my parents took me to see Sonny at Carnegie Hall with Mingus and Dizzy. The emotional effect that jazz had on people, the way they reacted to it ? that was a turning point for me."
Clifton went on to graduate from the Manhattan School of Music, and from there served valuable apprenticeships with Slide Hampton's World of Trombones, Frank Foster's Loud Minority, McCoy Tyner's Big Band, Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, and Abdullah Ibrahim, as well as performing with the leading lights of contemporary calypso and pop such as the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Nelson, Paul Simon, and Stevie Wonder. Then in 1983 he hooked up with Sonny Rollins, where his presence signaled a period of tremendous creative growth for the tenor saxophonist ? from Sunny Days, Starry Nights through to the present. "That's really kind of spoiled me for working with other people in a lot of ways," Clifton laughs, "because when you're playing with another tenor player it's like, 'Well, don't you hear that?' You're waiting for them to fill a little pocket or harmonize the way I'm used to hearing Sonny do, and to me it's almost obvious now. Like that's the way it's supposed to go."
All of which comes pouring out in the joyous mix of ballads, blues, swing, and calypso music that marks the trombonist's debut as a leader, Landmarks. From the regal brass cries which herald the spiritual celebration of "P.G. (From Whom All Blessings Flow)," through the supple Latin-cum-swing changes of "Landmarks Along the Way," to the dancing island changes of "I Thought It Was Understood," Anderson displays a gift for cogent, focused lyricism, animated by a relaxed yet relentless sense of swing. On the blazing Texas shuffle of "Mommy" and the colorful changes of "Princess Neh Neh," Anderson teams with altoist Kenny Garrett and trumpeter Wallace Roney to fashion the kind of intuitive melodic exchanges and deft harmonies that have marked Anderson's work with Rollins, while his remarkable melodic ardor on the standards "I've Never Been in Love Before" and "My One and Only Love" show that Anderson has a special gift for expressing the vocal allure of the trombone ? he is a singer of songs.
"I'm really open to a lot of influences," Anderson concludes by way of looking towards future goals. "There are elements of R&B and fusion I'd like to draw on besides traditional jazz. I've written music for a variety of grooves I want to get to eventually, but without getting too far away from my spiritual center, because for me there's nothing quite like the experience of playing jazz in an improvisational setting and swinging hard."