Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson on working with Wynton Marsalis and new group Boxcar

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When he branched out on his own after more than two decades of working with Wynton Marsalis -- both in his septet and as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra -- alto sax player Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson had more time to work with his own group as well as the brand-new quartet Boxcar, which features bassist Anthony Cox (who's worked with Joe Lovano, Stan Getz and others) and pianist Jeremy Walker and drummer JT Bates. While all have a long history of making music together, they will have played only two gigs together as Boxcar by the time they make it to Dazzle for a two-night stand tonight, December 14, and tomorrow, December 15. We caught up with Anderson before Boxcar had actually played together to talk about the new group, working with Wynton Marsalis and how he got the nickname "Warmdaddy."

Westword: What's the lowdown with Boxcar?

Wessell "Warmdaddy" Anderson: This is the group. We come to swing. We actually haven't gotten together yet. We will before we get there. We'll rehearse and play and have a good time.

Was there any initial goal when putting the group together as far as what kind of direction you're going to go in?

Nope. Whatever comes out is going to be good. We're good musicians. I've played with them over the years, but at not at this format. It's really going to be a lot of a fun. Everybody's going to have original music. That means one thing you can strike on. A lot of good music and just having a good time, getting together and swinging. Will it differ at all from your own group?

Not that I know of, because it's a quartet. It's hard to tell, because we haven't played together as a quartet yet, so it can go in its own direction. That's what's great about jazz music. Once you get people together who have played together in enough groups, you don't know what you're going to get out of it. That's the excitement about it.

You were saying that you've played with these guys for quite some time. What was it about each player that made you want to form a group around them?

My friend Jeremy, who plays piano, I know him as a sax player. That's how long I've known him. We've been talking about it over the years, and we finally talked to Anthony and said, "Man, let's put something together and see what happens." This time everyone's a little more free to do it. I played with Wynton for over twenty years, and I have much more freedom now to do things on my own. I have a group of young musicians, including my son. He's a great trombonist. He's actually getting ready to go to New York City, and he's going to come play with me at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Lincoln Center. As a sextet.

So, I just try to bring my personality and all the experience that I've had - I'm now 47 - so I'm considered the old person. So I bring a little experience with me. With jazz, you put it together, it still becomes something new. With four people playing and they get into their space, you never know what's going to happen. We haven't played yet, and we're getting gig calls for the Jazz Standard in New York City and a couple of jazz festivals. People like the feeling of getting four musicians together and seeing what happens.

Are you going to be doing any sort of collective improv?

All of that. Everything and none of it (laughs). It's going to be good, I can tell you that. We just haven't played together yet as a quartet. So that's what going to give it a lot of juice and a lot of flavor. When we start playing, everyone listens to each other. When you listen, it can go in any direction. So it's hard to put any names on it, which is actually great. People know all four of us, so.... Me and Anthony -- I've respected him a long time -- so now we're getting a chance to play. It's going to be very exciting, like a wild giraffe in Africa.

Are there any common styles you are all into, like some common ground where you come together?

I don't know yet. I've done interviews over many years where you can know what it's going to sound like, but this one I can't tell you anything until after our first gig. But I can tell you it's going to be very exciting. We'll have fun. All four of us are into the history and tradition of the music, so nothing won't sound bad. It's kind of a wait-and-see group. Some of the best groups, when they first started, nobody knew what they were going to be doing. Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Cannonball or Ahmad Jamal, once they heard it, they were like, "I've got to have this."

As a kid, my mom used to take to me these jazz shows in Denver where the promoter would put people together, and a lot of times they would have never played together. Cats like Zoot Sims and Red Rodney.

When they come together, you know it's going to be fire. All the bands they played with -- Red Rodney played with Bird and Zoot Sims played with all those great big bands. You know you're going to get something great out of that. You could play blues all night and you're going to get some new blues. Blues is almost 200 years old. So don't worry. That's why when people come to a jazz concert... just come, close your eyes and use your ears like you would use your eyes. We could play the same song, but it will be different every night.

Do you guys have any plans to record if this goes well?

Hopefully, we'll get a chance to record after the holidays. By the time we get to the Jazz Standard in May, we'll try to have a recording of the group when we get there, so people can say, "Okay, I've heard them. Let me take the music home and see if I can digest them." Is there any significance behind the name of the group, Boxcar?

I don't know where they got the name from. Everybody's from different areas in the United States and into different types of music. We're just boxed up together. Like a boxcar, there might be a few things in there. It could be canned goods. It could be clothes. All kinds of stuff. That's what makes it kind of nice. So nobody can really put their finger on it yet.

You worked with Wynton for two decades. What did you get out of that experience?

Man, I got everything. I first started in his septet in 1988. I learned how to play in a small group, music written for four horns and rhythm sections. Then we moved over to Jazz at Lincoln Center, and I started to go back and learn big-band music. I had to learn a lot about Duke Ellington's music. Just about everything that I know now just came from Wynton Marsalis. Without him, I'd still be trying to figure out what I want to do. Now I have a chance to go in different directions. Whenever you play with somebody for a long time, you just figure things out quicker because you got a gig the next night.

Really, learning about the history of music, for me, was a great thing, because I came up listening to Charlie Parker. I knew more for me, from Charlie Parker coming forward, so I had to go back and start checking out Johnny Hodges. I was not familiar with that. But after doing a year or two of serious studying Johnny Hodges, I said, "Now, this is a whole other way of playing the alto saxophone." It's completely different, and just as great, too." I tell my students you have to go back before 1945 and check out what came before Charlie Parker and what made him want to play his way. That's how things develop, you know? If you don't know the history, it's hard to go forward. You have to go back first. That's all. Where does your nickname, "Warmdaddy," come from?

I got that when I started working with Wynton. One of the first gigs I played with him was in Chicago in 1988. After the concert, there was a man who had his son and his daughter with him, and they were trying to get an autograph. But it's very tricky to find out where the band is after the concert. So I saw him and said, "You want to get an autograph?" He said, "Yeah, please." So I brought them downstairs. Herlin Riley was the drummer at the time, and Herman says, "Man, that's a warm gesture." So Wynton, without even looking up, says, "Yeah, I like that. Warmdaddy. That's your nickname."

When you were talking about Johnny Hodges, he's got that real warm tone. I figured your nickname might have something to do with your tone.

No. Wynton says that, but really it's about that time the guy had his kids at the gig and just wanted to get an autograph.

What else are you working on these days?

I've always liked playing with a quartet, but I'm also enjoying playing with my sextet. We haven't started yet. We're going to start in two weeks. I'm writing the music and trying to work on extending ideas and using things that I've been writing and just expand the music out. Just trying different things, you know? I'm a musician, so I'm always going to be aware of what's going on and the possibilities. It is 2011, you know? It's great to play other people's music, but certain times you have to do it your way. If it's the blues, it's going to be the Warmdaddy blues. Just being a musician, you can go out there and try things. If it doesn't work, you tweak it and then do it again the next night. It's that simple. With young musicians, they're more open to certain things. Whereas with older musicians, it's, "Let's do this. Let's do that." You say, "Okay. Yes, sir." All my bands are usually half my age, which is nice.

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