Listeners lucky (and eager) enough to acquire one of the first 1000 copies of the Vandermark 5's two latest Atavistic records found a special gift tucked in the package: a bonus CD featuring live material recorded by the group at Chicago's Empty Bottle (where the quintet has performed weekly, barring other engagements, for six years). As a marketing tool, the live material was brilliant: these two discs sold faster than ever before. Unfortunately, listeners who were not quick enough to secure the special sets were left hanging.
This shortfall has now been corrected with the release of Free Jazz Classics, a two-disc set containing all the bonus material. And it's a wonderful thing. To date, the Vandermark 5 has focused on performing original material, which has come to define its distinctive, signature sound. Ken Vandermark's role and reputation as a composer has been solidified throughout the jazz community, but only now can we appreciate how the group treats free jazz classics from the likes of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, and Anthony Braxtonas well as less iconic composers like Frank Wright, Jimmy Giuffre, and Joe McPhee. The surprise (at least to some) is that the quintet appears equally at home on the new ground.
First, it's important to recognize that these are live recordings. That means they represent raw, spontaneous, and intuitive performances from a group that has evolved as a unit. Second, it's not much of a leap from the quintet's usual soundat the precarious border between freedom and orderto its interpretations of this material. The music sounds natural, unforced, and energetic. Third, it's surprising how fluid the Vandermark 5 make transitions between vastly different approaches to composition (eg. Dolphy's "Gazzelloni" to Lester Bowie's "New York Is Full of Lonely People"). These pieces all seem part of a larger continuum.
The highlight of the collection is Wright's "The Earth/Jerry The Moon," which rolls out from a dark, spare group introduction into Kent Kessler's spacious bass soloonly to return to the theme and launch into high-energy blowing. Minutes later, the group is swinging away (dig the interaction between Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna), and then Rempis heads off into the final chorus with a lyrical, flowing alto solo. One tune later, the group catches an infectious groove on "Scootin' About", a nice angular piece by Jimmy Giuffre. The melody here has a surprisingly catchy quality.
"69L" bears Anthony Braxton's quirky signature, with a loping head and bouncing improvisations whose character is defined as much by the accents as the notes chosen. Mulvenna takes a long drum solo and then the group comes back together in collective improvisation. Joe McPhee's ballad "Goodbye Tom B." receives a delicate, emotional treatment entirely in character with its tone and message.
Whether you're interested in fresh reinterpretations of some solid pieces out of the free jazz repertoire, or just curious to hear what the Vandermark 5 can do on this ground, Free Jazz Classics has a lot to offer. The coherence and intuition of the group make it a satisfying exploration of outer sound. Vandermark says, "their work changed me for the better." It's good to hear evidence from the source.
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Personnel: Jeb Bishop: trombone; Kent Kessler: bass; Tim Mulvenna: drums; Dave
Rempis: also & tenor sax; Ken Vandermark: tenor sax, Bb and bass