Hitting the High Notes

Sax player Jay Anderson’s music is nurtured by his love of farming and cooking.

Playing saxophone has brought acclaim to local musician Jay Anderson. But any discussion of creativity with the performer – who collaborates with local acts from acoustic jazz trio Stomata to diverse supergroup Foreign Goods (which includes Kellen Abston, the local rapper known as Klassik) – turns to talk of food.

Anderson doesn’t draw artistic lines in his life. Music, farming and cooking are his sustenance. Growing food is perhaps in his DNA. His love of plants dates to childhood, when he would “freak out” upon seeing a greenhouse. A fascination with soil and contained heat made him “sneak into” the glass enclosures before he was old enough to drive.

His grandparents cooked what they grew and exposed their children and grandchildren to a natural, economical diet of chitterlings and cow tongue.

The North Side urban farm Growing Power offered Anderson an introduction to farmer and MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” recipient Will Allen.

After a six-year stint working for nonprofit Walnut Way – whose revitalization efforts have included turning more than 20 vacant lots on the North Side into gardens and green spaces – the 23-year-old left to cook (for a time, at Transfer pizzeria on Mitchell Street) and to focus on his music. For him, no pursuit exists on its own. Farming (he has plots as close as Riverwest and as far as Mequon) fuels his cooking, and the two activities fuel his music: “Music is what brings the joy and pleasure to my life,” but what also brings the “many dimensions” to it, as Anderson puts it, is “collecting skills,” which includes growing peppers for a local line of hot sauces called Man’s Best Friend. The “trick,” he says, “is being well-rounded.”


Kitchen Sounds

➸ Anderson’s culinary interests center on cuisines with intriguing histories and connections to other styles of cooking, specifically African, South Indian and Chinese: “I’m fascinated by food and flavors and the chemical interactions.”

➸ A few years ago, when Anderson started playing with Afro-Cuban band De La Buena, he went to vocalist/conga player Cecilio Negron Jr.’s house for a drum lesson that included eating yellow rice made by Negron’s grandmother. “I feel bad because I’m more excited to meet someone’s grandmother and talk about food…. If I play with Latin musicians, it doesn’t matter as much how I play. If they know I can fry chicharrones and butcher a hog, I’m OK.”

➸ Anderson: “Food melds in the same way that music melds. I might describe a line of music as ‘spicy,’ an album as ‘filling’ or ‘satiating.’ There’s an overlap of descriptive adjectives.”

‘Hitting the High Notes’ appears in the May 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the May issue on newsstands beginning May 2, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.