Despite his ongoing prolific output elsewhereincluding freshly reviewed efforts by Tripleplay and the Free Music Ensembleadventuresome reed player Ken Vandermark seems to always find time for the Vandermark 5. And that's a very good thing. The artist may have one of the busiest performance schedules in improvised music (and some strong opinions on the subject, which can be seen at length in a recent AAJ Bulletin Board thread ), but he's still willing to put in studio time that counts.
Seven releases down the road from 1997's Single Piece Flow, Vandermark's flagship quintet continues to serve as a vehicle for his original compositions, which span the range from hard-swinging bop to funk to energy music and the great uncategorizable beyond. The dedicatees on Elements of Style include John Gilmore, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn Gould, and Max Beckmann, to name a few. As might be expected, the connections are not necessarily all that obvious, but not much about what Vandermark does is obvious, anyway.
The front line of the V5 consists of Vandermark on various reeds, Dave Rempis on saxophones, and Jeb Bishop on trombone. Vandermark still has a fiery edge, manifested in the bubbling energy of "Strata," which churns and boils but isn't outright explosiveand that barely contained tension, constantly seeking release, provides an exciting ride through roughly charted territory. (One "surprise" heralded by the disc's title comes through when drummer Tim Daisy takes center stage midway through the piece and nearly halts the piece before jutting his way into some deep rumblings of his own.)
But rough overtones and raw intensity aren't there to crowd the field and demand attention; instead, they exist as a sort of musical counterpoint to more controlled action. To my ears the mixed settings work stunningly: "Knock Yourself Out" (dedicated to Basquiat) weds a funk groove to polyrhythmic swing, then passes through collective disquiet and hits a fierce climax before getting down and dirty once again. The tightness of the group (horns weaving in and out, bass and drums providing measured balance and opposition) is a tribute to years of shared sweat. Jeb Bishop's trombone work throughout the record is dramatic, assertive, and confident.
Less greasy pieces like the deliberate, seeking "Outside Ticket," the Euro-free "Intagliamento," and the free-bopping "Telefon" provide counterweight and delve into other stylistic corners of a jazz cosmos Ken Vandermark clearly views as an expanding universe. While Vandermark claims that "...recordings have gained a dangerous level of importance in the supposed understanding of jazz and improvised music," this listener for one is grateful that he doesn't eschew them. Elements of Style is one of the most engaging recordings I've heard this year and the best V5 release to date.
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Personnel: Jeb Bishop - Trombone; Tim Daisy - Drums; Kent Kessler - Bass; Dave Rempis - Saxophones; Ken
Vandermark - Reeds.