With a snug black cap often pulled over his curly blonde hair, Ara Anderson cuts a thin, linear figure onstage, his rail arms bent into triangle points as he presses the trumpet to his lips. But full, free-flowing music still seeps into the notes, fluctuating between big-band charts and sea shanties. For Anderson, music doesn't just set a mood, it tells stories. Onstage, he is equally engaged in playing and conducting: Whether talking through his horn to a single dust mote that languidly descends through the spotlight, counting off beats with hands that slice through the air, or dropping a stylus on a classic piece of vinyl, his level of concentration never wavers.
A longtime student of classical theory and a jazzcentric listener from his formative years, Anderson's ear for careful arrangements is evident in everything he does. Admitting that he is a stronger composer than player, Ara's writing prowess not only fuels two bands -- Boostamonte, and Iron and the Albatross -- but has earned him commissions from the comedy troupe Killing My Lobster and the variety show Pickle Family Circus.
Both experiences honed Anderson's collaborative abilities, forcing him to work with a group of people who didn't necessarily share his aesthetic sensibilities. "Every project I've had to budge on betters me as a writer," he says.
And as much as music is an issue of timing, circus acts and comedy troupes rely on clockwork-precise moves to execute their gags and tricks, so the music Anderson penned provided lessons in exact timing. So now, no matter which musical endeavor you encounter, it's hard not to imagine tightrope walkers and trapeze flyers when he is involved.
Like all great bandleaders, Anderson knows his compositions are only as good as the players he surrounds himself with. Whether it's Boostamonte -- a brassy, jazzed-up, funky, cinematic big band -- or Iron and the Albatross -- a quintet that echoes gypsy caravans, circus freaks, and sweltering seas -- he selects collaborators who fit the music perfectly, as though born specifically to play it. A San Francisco native, Anderson has had a lifetime to delve into the Bay Area's music scene, associating himself with the likes of Tom Waits (Ara appeared on Blood Money and Alice), Jolie Holland, Adam Theis, Ches Smith, and Sean Hayes.
Above all, Anderson writes scenarios. His tunes dip in and out of moods and styles, but they all possess narrative structures. He credits this aspect of the music to the radio formats in the pre-TV days of yore, when dramas and comedies crackled out over radio waves. The influence of the old radio formats is evident at Boostamonte shows, where since 1999 Anderson has spun old vinyl recordings such as the Superman theme: As the hero soars off to rescue another damsel in distress, Ara and his mates follow with flares of trombone pulls and explosions of brass notes. With multiple trumpets, saxophones, and trombones in the mix, Boostamonte's music is complex but never bulky, with a fluidity that gives testament to Anderson's ear. He gives players charts to work from, but builds in plenty of room to roam, creating huge sounds and intimate whispers that never get tangled or muddied.
Iron and the Albatross boasts an even more evocative narrative, with Anderson doing quadruple duty on trumpet, baritone horn, glockenspiel, and pump organ, with drums, cello, piano, and violin for accompaniment. The group formed in 2003 after Ara met indie-folk diva Jolie Holland, who sometimes sings with the group. Ara found her background in American roots music fused perfectly with his songs. With titles like "Doldrums," "North Sea," "Chinese Opera," and "Teeter Board Dance," Iron and the Albatross drops you into the horse-drawn caravans and trade ships that crossed the far reaches of the Old World, where various folk traditions migrated, evolved, and mutated.
The ability to breathe life into each and every note ultimately defines Anderson's output. Hesitant to call himself a great trumpet player -- "I don't practice five hours a day" -- he simply aims to squeeze what he can from what he can do. "I can play just five or six notes," he says excitedly, "and really make them sing."
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