Concerts by the Canal: The Anderson twins offer a double take on jazz

Peter and Will Anderson have a special bond. First, they are brothers. Second, they are twins. Third, they are jazz musicians who play the same reed instruments.

The Anderson twins will be in Ottawa on Nov. 25 to play a concert at Southminster United Church as part of the Concerts by the Canal series. But before they arrive Peter Anderson talked about their life in music.

Anderson was speaking from his home in New York City. He lives about 25 blocks from Will.

“We started playing instruments seriously at age nine. And we started on the same day in the public school band program. Our parents aren’t musical. They are music fans and very supportive but we owe a lot to the public system in Bethesda, Maryland,” he said.

The program offered a choice of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute and percussion.

“We picked the same instrument,” he said. And that was the clarinet.

“Even before we were already aware of the clarinet, we would see this TV commercial for Chips Ahoy cookies and Benny Goodman‘s Sing, Sing, Sing was the soundtrack. We’d been hearing this music and we asked who was playing. We were told it was Benny Goodman. And so when the time came to choose an instrument it was the clarinet for sure.”

Anderson says the clarinet appealed to him because “its sound is beautiful. It’s really versatile too. Unlike other instruments the clarinet has an incredible range low to high. It has some drawbacks. It can’t project sound as well as other instruments and it sort of fell out of favour after the Big Band era.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, people stopped playing it. Saxophone players like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins took over and clarinet was basically not to be found. I feel though that it is making a comeback now.”

He connects that to a cultural interest in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. “The music is on YouTube. People are buying record players again and there are television shows like Boardwalk Empire helping that interest along.” The twins even got a spot on the Grammy winning soundrack for Boardwalk Empire with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks.

The other reason they started with the clarinet, Anderson says, is because it’s light.

“When you’re nine, you aren’t big enough to hold a saxophone.” That came a year later when they were a bit bigger, then they added to saxophone.

The two instruments are in same family, he says, adding, they almost feel like each helps to understand the other. Now they play all forms of saxophone along with clarinet and flute.

The Andersons never lost that interest in earlier eras of jazz sparked by the cookie commercial.

“Jazz is really only 100 years old. Going back and investigating all these different sounds from the past 100 years has been helpful, inspiring and it really informs what we do.

“Even if you limit yourself to one era and one style of jazz, there is still so much freedom in it, that you can spend whole life copying one style or even one player.”

“We love most of it and try to incorporate as much of what we like into our performances to make them dynamic. We are definitely influenced by New Orleans jazz but also by swing, bee bop and post bop.”

There are so many great reed players, Anderson says, but a particular favourite is Charlie Parker.

“He was someone who was deeply influenced by everything that came before him. When he plays you can hear all of  that, but at the same time he was really innovative and always did something completely new.

“There are early recordings when he is a teenager and he is playing Benny Goodman solos and Louis Armstrong solos and Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins and making them his own. That is what it takes to absorb all this great music.

“Some musicians are able to out a unique spin on it some can’t. For us, just playing good music is our priority. if we are able to innovate at the end of it, that’s great but that’s not the point. We are just trying to have fun and be creative.”

The twins are performing in a trio in Ottawa. The third member of their group plays guitar. It is an unusual threesome, he says.

“It’s definitely unique in jazz, I would say. Our guitarist is, in a sense, our rhythm section. My brother and I are constantly playing riffs and ostinatos to complement each other.

“We do every combination of instrument. Sometimes it’s two clarinets, sometimes it’s two saxes. It’s like mixing colours. Sometimes you want all blue and sometimes you want blue and green or green and red.”

While the idea of twin brothers playing in a jazz trio brings to mind some sort of unconscious and deep connection while playing, Anderson says his sympatico with his brother is much more about playing together for a long time.

“We are aware of each other. I think what makes our group special is the fact that we have been playing together for 20 years. I don’t think the whole DNA thing is really that important. It’s not a mental telepathy thing. You have two musicians who know each other intimately musically.

“The fact that we are related and twins is overstated. It’s really just knowing the other person musically.”

Their career is built around their musical relationship but they are navigating their own musical lives too.

“When you are co-leading a group you have to make sacrifices. I can’t have it 100 per cent my way and he can’t either. Overall we do bigger and better things together than we can separately.

We do play apart all the time. And in the show one of us will be heavily featured playing his music and then it will be the other’s turn.”

The brothers studied at The Julliard School in New York together. That’s where they met Wynton Marsalis. They even got a gig with the Jazz at the Lincoln Centre Orchestra.

“We talk to Wynton pretty frequently. He is an inspiration to us, a great player and composer. When you talk to him you are inspired. A lot of great musicians don’t have a lot of charisma. But he has it.”

The Andersons have studied and played classical music but “you have to focus on jazz to master it. There are some musicians who are able to do both like Marsalis. But ultimately though he does jazz more. George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein were able to bridge the gap.”

Anderson says he’s not worried about a declining interest in jazz.

“I think a lot of this stuff is based on misconception. The economy has a lot to do with it. Ever since 2008 everything has been tough.

“The music is changing. Jazz used to be only in nightclubs and jazz clubs. They didn’t allow it in schools and churches and now the music is being studied and played in big universities and conservatories. I don’t see how you could say it’s hurting. It’s morphing into other places and spaces.

“Duke Ellington would have killed to have what Wynton Marsalis has at the Lincoln Centre. He has a full orchestra on salary with a building in middle of New York. They tour all over the world and it’s all paid for. This couldn’t have happened 50 years ago and it’s happening now.”

This twins travel 30,000 miles a year playing jazz but this will be their first visit to Ottawa.

Peter and Will Anderson Trio
Concerts by the Canal
When: Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Southminster United Church, 15 Aylmer Ave.
Tickets and information: eventbrite,ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.