By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A rare avant-garde artist who managed to cross over to mainstream pop success, SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director performs a series of shows with varied collaborators at Miner Auditorium this weekend.
Born in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Anderson studied art at several schools including Mills College in Oakland, eventually earning her BA degree in art history at Barnard College in 1969 and her MFA in sculpture three years later. While she staged her first performance-art piece — a symphony that was played by car horns — in 1969, Anderson initially spent her post-collegiate career drawing the underground comic Baloney Moccasins, teaching art, illustrating children’s books and writing art criticism, she eventually moved towards performance art and music.
Mixing spoken word, her violin playing (she would later invent an instrument with magnetic tape as part of the bow and a tape head at the bridge) and electronics, Anderson began performing regularly around New York City, getting involved in the avant-garde art and music scene that was developing downtown. Her early recordings made for art installations like “New York Social Life” and “It’s Not the Bullet that Kills You (It’s the Hole)” were included in compilations and released in limited quantities before she contributed songs that made up one side of the 2LP compilation You’re the Guy I Want to Share My Money With on NYC poet and performance artist John Giorno’s label. Anderson would work with such notable artists as writer William Burroughs and fringe comic Andy Kaufmann.
She would score a surprise hit in the UK with her song “O Superman,” a minimalist electronic tune featuring Anderson’s heavily processed voice that was drawn from her ambitious stage work United States. The success of the song led to Anderson receiving an unheard of (for an experimental artist) seven-album deal with Warner Bros., which re-released the single and included the song on her debut album, 1982’s Big Science. Drawing more material from United States — which would eventually see release in 1984 as a five-record box recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — that album and it’s more pop-minded follow-up Mr Heartbreak established Anderson as recording artist who could achieve critical acclaim with some commercial success despite her avant-garde leanings.
Her collaboration with Peter Gabriel “This Is the Picture (Excellent Birds)” and the song “Sharkey’s Day” became minor MTV hits. In 1986, Anderson directed her acclaimed concert film Home of the Brave that showcased her groundbreaking visual style and kinetic multimedia live show. The artist would continue to pursue music — going so far as to take vocal lessons prior to recording her 1989 album Strange Angels — but shifted her back to large scale theatrical performances with such works as The Nerve Bible and her late ’90s project Songs and Stories from Moby Dick. Anderson also had her first collaborations with Lou Reed, contributing to several of his recordings and starting a creative and personal relationship that would culminate with their marriage in 2008.
Anderson has remained prolific into the 21st century, regularly performing with Reed as a duo at John Zorn’s artist-focused venue the Stone, staging numerous exhibits and theatrical works, more recently winning a Grammy last year for her collaboration with the Kronos Quartet, Landfall. For Anderson’s four performances at the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium, She presents a varied mix of shows with notable co-conspirators.
On Thursday, she opens the run with a special trio set featuring virtuoso jazz bassist Christian McBride and Albanian cellist Rubin Kohdeli, who worked with Anderson on her piece Letters to Jack, devoted to her correspondence with John F. Kennedy when she was still a teen. The trio played it’s first performance in New York to ecstatic reviews in 2017 and makes it’s West Coast debut at SFJAZZ (1/23, 7:30 p.m. $45-$105). The following evening, Anderson and Kohdeli share the stage for a show as a duo (1/24, 7:30 p.m. $35-$95).
Saturday night, Anderson is joined by Bay Area vocal iconoclast Mike Patton for what may be the most unusual performance of the residency. Best known for his work fronting alternative-rock bands Faith No More and the more experimental Mr. Bungle, Patton has proven himself to be one of the most versatile and wide-ranging singers on the planet with his extensive exploration of avant-garde music with such compatriots as John Zorn and his fringe metal super group Fantômas. Anderson and Patton with use the text from “Quanjing Jieyao Pian” — the final chapter of the 16th century military manual Jixiao Xinshu written by Ming dynasty general and Chinese national hero Qi Jiguang — as the jumping off point for an evening of unpredictable sounds (1/25, 7:30 p.m. sold out). On Sunday, Anderson closes out her residency with a sold-out solo performance (1/26, 7 p.m. sold out) with Anderson presenting songs and solo pieces drawn from her recent book, the career overview All the Things I Lost in the Flood.