Ken Vandermark: Radiale, Gambit, and Elements of Style, Exercises in Surprise

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Ken Vandermark continues to issue recordings at a wildly prolific rate, yet for all the similarities, each one of his projects offers something different. And while charting the genealogy of his collaborative relationships can be like figuring out who is brother to whom on a soap opera, the crucial member of the two trios under consideration here - Spaceways Inc. and Tripleplay - is bassist Nate McBride. Influenced as much by Mike Watt as by Ron Carter, McBride brings a sensibility that moves Vandermark's music outside the free jazz tradition.

Zu v. Spaceways, Inc.

When I put Radiale into my computer, the "genre" came up as unclassifiable. That's a fair start in describing the Italian trio Zu, comprised of baritone sax, electric bass and drums. These tunes are heavy, locked down by Massimo Pupillo's bass and reinforced by Vandermark and Luca Mai's snarling horns. The second half of the recording adds McBride and drummer Hamid Drake to the ad hoc Zu quartet on two George Clinton workouts, an Art Ensemble composition and a Sun Ra cover that benefits from the rhythmic barrage. Radiale is unembellished, raucous, and exceptional.

Clean Feed

McBride's acoustic bass is no less powerful in Tripleplay, and his compositions are the gems on Gambit. "Framinghammer" features Vandermark's bluesy tenor and McBride's steady-as-she-goes basslines, while his "Barker Waters" creates the sensation of forward motion as Vandermark's clarinet floats along like a hovercraft and through drummer Curt Newton's clicking sticks. On "Bird, Field", bass clarinet mirrors McBride's arco, before the tune gets up on its feet and lumbers forward into melody. Tripleplay combines three individual voices to form a perfectly balanced unit.

Ken Vandermark 5
Elements of Style, Exercises in Surprise

If the trio is Vandermark's preferred format, the Vandermark 5 may be the band that gives clearest expression to his music. When Jeb Bishop gave up his electric guitar for 2001's Acoustic Machine, the 5 lost some of its implicit danger. With Elements of Style (available in a limited edition along with a marvelous disc of Rahsaan Roland Kirk music), Vandermark's compositions are more suited to the band's new sonic identity, and the 20-minute "Six of One" epitomizes the band's range, from abstract reflection to roaring full-band blare. The Vandermark 5 continues to show why it's the most compelling small group working today.

Tracks: 1 Canicula 5:44 2 Thanatocracy 5:29 3 Vegetalista 3:41 4 Pharmakon 4:26 5 Trash A-Go-Go 5:06 6 Theme de Yoyo 5:12 7 You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks 4:40 8 We Travel the Spaceways/Space Is the Place 8:10

Personnel: Tacopo Battaglia: Drums; Hamid Drake: Drums; Luca T. Mai: Baritone Sax; Nate McBride: Bass; Massimo Pupillo: Bass; Ken Vandermark: Reeds.

Tracks: 1 Rastro 5 (For Emir Kusturica) 7:19 2 Framinghammer 7:20 3 Two (For Joe Morris) 4:06 4 Barker Waters 7:53 5 F-Stop (For Robert Frank) 5:38 6 Bird, Field (Gray) 9:14 7 Hydro 5:44 8 Tilted (For Robert Pete Williams) 7:06

Personnel: Nate McBride: Double Bass; Curt Newton: Drums; Ken Vandermark: Reeds.

Elements of Style, Exercises in Surprise
Tracks: 1 Outside Ticket 9:23 2 Knock Yourself Out 6:03 3 Intagliamento 5:31 4 Telefon 7:23 5 Gyllene 8:32 6 Strata 8:26 7 Six of One 20:10

Personnel: Jeb Bishop: Trombone; Tim Daisy: Drums; Kent Kessler: Bass; Dave Rempis: Saxophone; Ken Vandermark: Reeds.

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