Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Ken Vandermark is widely known for paying homage to artists of various disciplines, regularly including dedications in his song titles to those who have inspired him. On 35mm, the studio debut of his newest ensemble, The Frame Quartet, Vandermark reveals his longstanding debt to cinema, not only in name, but in approach.
Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative medium, and The Frame Quartet embraces this concept implicitly; Vandermark is the sole writer, yet each of the album's five compositions is conducted by a different member of the quartet, except for "M.E.S. (for Merce Cunningham)." Though only "Lens (for Ennio Morricone)" is dedicated to an artist directly involved in film, all of the pieces embrace the art form's predilection for linear development. Eschewing conventional forms, these labyrinthine structures transition suddenly between modes, emulating cinema's narrative flow with dramatic shifts in tone that parallel the sudden splice cuts found in celluloid editing.
Bringing these episodic works to life are some of Chicago's most resourceful improvisers, including cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Tim Daisyall veterans of Vandermark's numerous ensembles. Utilizing an array of raw, electronic EFX, Longberg-Holm veers from austere acoustic cadenzas to amplified torrents of coruscating feedback. McBride alternates between upright and electric bass, while Vandermark reserves his clarinet for introspective moments, unfurling burly, pneumatic cadences on tenor saxophone elsewhere.
The session unveils an array of evocative styles, including bluesy noir, pungent funk, and austere impressionism. "Multi-Chrome (for Peter Brotzmann, Han Bennink, Fred Van Hove)" opens the record with an ominous vamp that suddenly vanishes, leaving an electro-acoustic cello cadenza in its wake. A serpentine pulse materializes, leading the group through myriad changes before downshifting into a somber tenor and bass duet that precedes the recapitulated theme. The remainder of the album follows similarly unpredictable patterns.
"Lens (for Ennio Morricone)" modulates from pliant swing to syncopated grooves, intensified by blistering solos from Longberg-Holm and Vandermark before dissipating in a tranquil coda. The sober pointillism of "M.E.S. (for Merce Cunningham)" features the session's only completely acoustic performance, while "Theater Piece (for Jimmy Lyons)" is the album's epic centerpiece. Careening between movements, the piece vacillates from frenzied interplay to hushed aleatoric discourse, featuring numerous solo cadenzas and intimate duets. Ending the record with a burst of amplified abandon, "Straw (for Steve Lacy)" highlights Lonberg-Holm's spiky cello and Vandermark's scorching tenor in a variety of settings, from pensive silences to slashing electrified downbeats.
As one of Vandermark's most dynamic ensembles, The Frame Quartet rivals his flagship band, The Vandermark 5, for pure diversity of sound. But where The Vandermark 5 tends towards more organic compositional strategies, The Frame Quartet's audacious jump-cut aesthetic attains a distinct identity, making 35mm a unique item in Vandermark's oeuvre.
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone and Bb clarinet; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello and electronics; Nate McBride: acoustic and electric bass, electronics; Tim Daisy: drums.