Music is a game of influences and Ken Vandermark is a musician who proudly wears his influences on his sleeve. Instead of refuting or avoiding them he routinely embraces and acknowledges them. It’s a lesson in character and rectitude that many of his detractors could learn from. His reverence for what has come before manifests in a variety of ways from the dedicatory nature of many of his compositions, to the elements of others heard in personalized form through his playing, to the projects and aggregations he chooses to undertake. The sphere of influence for School Days may be obvious to many. Taking their name from the title of the only recording by the quartet Steve Lacy fronted with Roswell Rudd in the early 1960s this quartet is a joining of American and Swedish halves. The rhythm section, introduced to Vandermark through the liaison Mats Gustafsson, is geared from the get go for maximum muscular but multi-directional swing. Vandermark and Bishop are longtime associates from a variety of mobilizations under the latter’s leadership.
Program-wise there are the usual suspects of dedicatory pieces including numbers penned in honor of the likes of Mal Waldron (“Broad Daylight”), Teddy Charles (“Get On The Plane”) and Harry Carney (“Passenger”). Vandermark dispenses with any trivialities and commences straight to blow on Bishop’s “Bookworm,” a tune that is anything but egghead in conception. Spooling out under a loose rhythmic groove Bishop blows a rounded snaking solo turn after his friend’s surly run on tenor. “Counteraction,” dedicated to Takeshi Kitano, is a wash of dissonant elements opening with a caustic conversation between Vandermark and Håker-Flaten’s acro bass. Form ensues around a blustery theme before the saxophonist takes control and pulls the ripcord on a filibustering tenor statement. Vandermark’s husky bass clarinet rears its serpentine head on “Passenger” hitting a succession of throaty velveteen notes in honor of Ellingtonian baritonist Harry Carney. “Rosmosis” and “Keep Your Head,” both from the compositional mind of Roswell Rudd are the only non-originals on the date. On each tune Bishop shows the influence of the composer with some strategically placed growls generated from the tubular guts of his horn.
Vandermark is always getting saddled with lambastes from the critical intelligentsia targeting his credibility as an improviser and a composer. Disc’s like this one illustrate in bold relief how immaterial such critiques are. Vandermark and his associates are sincere and dedicated in their craft. Calling them on the carpet for whatever manufactured opprobrium is the flavor of the month ultimately only ends up slighting those making the accusations. Meanwhile the rest of us are content to settle in and dig the sounds for what they are- truly swinging, communally created music, steeped in tradition, but derived from four fiercely liberated sources bent on having their voices be heard.
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