When Ken Vandermark released Burn the Incline a few years ago, the first thousand copies included a second disc of The Vandermark 5 playing classic compositions by noted jazz luminaries. Subsequently, the same promotional ploy was used on Acoustic Machine, with the band presenting yet another batch of music by noted performers/composers. This double recording packages both limited editions as a release of its own, and it is a welcome treat for the many not fortunate enough to have latched on to this music when initially offered.
Vandermark always doses out strong medicine, and since he normally prefers working with his own compositions, this tip of the hat to history and its makers is doubly meaningful. The band features a forceful horn section, with Jeb Bishop on trombone, Dave Rempis on alto and tenor saxophone, plus Vandermark playing tenor sax and clarinets. Bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna work overtime keeping the furnaces fueled underneath all this firepower. Even though the songs are recognizable, the group, as one would expect, puts its own unique twist on each to render them distinctly original contributions to improvised music.
The list of composers comprises a virtual who's who of notables. Starting with the bouncing music of Ornette Coleman and gliding on through works by Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Joe McPhee, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, and Lester Bowie, disc one establishes a high standard. The music cooks, and the musicians appear to be having plenty of fun putting their own stamp on these pieces; yet the most rewarding factor is the way they immerse themselves into the divergent styles of the composers.
Interpreting Braxton and Taylor back-to-back, for example, is a very stiff challenge, yet the Vandermark 5 excels at donning a chameleonic coat and imposing its personality on the music. Similarly, when sensitivity is required to express emotions on McPhee's "Goodbye Tom B.," the band makes the heartfelt switch effortlessly.
Disc two, recorded a year later, documents the music of Archie Shepp, Carla Bley, Frank Wright, Jimmy Giuffre, Julius Hemphill, and Don Cherry. The same energy and empathy of the composers' concepts pervades the recording. Vandermark goes on a tear with Shepp's opening piece, followed by the nostalgic brass/reed cover of the ensemble theme that transforms itself into a 21st century update done in free time. Each composer gets individualistic treatment: Bley is presented with staccato abruptness, Wright with mournful soulfulness leading to euphoria, Giuffre with lilting effervescence, Hemphill with haunting sadness and earthiness, and Cherry with jarring momentum.
Throughout both discs, Vandermark springs loose with gutsy improvisations, Jeb Bishop imposes his will with robust blowing, and Dave Rempis places his stylistic mark on the procession in turn. They trade barbs spontaneously and create a collective fury during the ensemble sections. Thunderclouds abound from the downpour of counter rhythms unloaded on the front-liners by Kent Kessler and Tim Mulvenna. The program is up-front, driven, and power-laden, reaffirming the strength Vandermark is able to exude in the creative process. These live sets keep the adrenaline pumping for the duration.
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Personnel: Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone, Bb & bass clarinet; Jeb Bishop: trombone; Kent Kessler: bass;
Tim Mulvenna: drums; Dave Rempis: alto & tenor saxophone.