Woodwind multi-instrumentalist Ken Vandermark has seen a number of personnel changes in his decade-old flagship group, the Vandermark 5. But when charter member Jeb Bishop left last year, Vandermark made the decision not to replace him with another trombonist. The Color of Memory (Atavistic, 2005) stands, as a result, as a high point and watershed mark of the "old Vandermark 5. A Discontinuous Line marks a significant shift with the recruitment of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, himself no stranger to the Chicago avant-garde scene. By adding an instrument that has the capacity for chordal support, Vandermark has reinvigorated his writing for the quintet. Not that it needed any in the first place.
Blasphemy it may be to suggest such a thing, but the new lineup may well be a more balanced one. With two horns, two strings and percussion, there's plenty of texture available. But the replacement of Bishop's always expressive trombone has created a sound that, while also capable of aggressive extremes as ever, enables a greater delicacybeauty, even.
On "La Dernier Cri, Tim Daisy's soft tympani-like mallet work on the toms creates a persistent undercurrent of rhythm. The piece starts with cued chords built amongst Vandermark, Lonberg-Holm, saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Kent Kessler. Were it not for Daisy, the piece would feel very Ligeti-like, although when it shifts into collective improvisation which treats space as an equal component, the reference dissolves. The beauty of Vandermark's writing, however, is the purposeful direction of such free improvisation: small, clearly constructed figures emerge and disappear, never to be heard from again. By the time Lonberg-Holm's brief solo is over, the group reunites for a coda related to the intro, but not any kind of restatement.
The new Vandermark 5 hasn't lost its edge. Lonberg-Holm lends ardent chordal support beneath Rempis' outré solo on "Convertible, Version One. In tandem with Kessler's arco bass, he builds a solo conception that's completely new to the group. Vandermark's cathartic baritone solo is driven in ways that would not have been possible with the old lineup, finally returning to the tune's repetitive 5/4 motif alongside Rempis, while Lonberg-Holm, Kessler and Daisy end the piece on a maelstrom-like note.
Vandermark pushes the envelope, but the swinging swagger on "Some Not All refers to the jazz tradition, despite a chamber-like intro that's equally informed by contemporary classicism. Lonberg-Holm's solo of reckless abandon, over which Vandermark and Rempis ultimately enter to signal a return to the lead-in figure, shifts to a rock-ish solo section for Rempis, where Lonberg-Holm's repeated 5/4 figure seamlessly segues into a 7/4 pattern. Complexity never felt this natural or inevitable.
Vandermark's biggest strength as a writer is his ability to create compositions that mesh challenging and sometimes long-form structure with freewheeling improvisation. The Color of Memory may have been a high-water mark for the original V5 lineup, but A Discontinuous Line signals a shift for a group that's just as compelling.
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: baritone saxophone, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet; Dave Rempis: alto and tenor saxophones; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello; Kent Kessler: bass; Tim Daisy: drums.