Surf by Ken Vandermark's website and you'll find evidence of a cottage industry. The industrious Chicagoan continues a relentless pace of touring and recording, releasing a generous handful of discs with each passing year. What's equally impressive about his activities is the number of people on board behind his grand designs. Myriad labels including Okkadisk , Atavistic , Wobbly Rail , Boxholder and more recently European imprints like Small Town Super Sound and Clean Feed all serve as conduits for his projects. His list of collaborators encompasses a small battalion of creative musicians of American and European origins. There's also a recently minted 'diary' section of his site that is surprisingly candid about his adventures and travails in striving to realize his goals. His willingness to go on record with these opinions is admirable, but it hints at a criticism some folks have with his music- that all the hustle and bustle has sapped some of the fire and passion from of his music on disc.
Two recent releases present both sides of this argument. They illustrate the benefits and costs that can result from a fecundity which has become Vandermark's mantra. Gambit presents the multi-reedist in the company of long-standing Boston-based cohorts, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Curt Newton, under the baseball sobriquet Tripleplay. Both men have proven their mettle on sessions with Vandermark (drop in on McBride's Rushmore-sized electric bass riffs for the trio Spaceways, Incorporated or Newton's responsive traps work on the Steel Wool Trio's International Front for confirmation). Each man has also logged even longer hours in the employ of guitarist Joe Morris.
Despite the promising cast depicted on its cardboard tray card, the disc feels oddly like another day of clock punching for these guys. The mood of session often seems unnecessarily dour and methodical. McBride's acro work is fulsome in tone, but saddled with somber weight and rarely leavened by the nimble pizzicato well within his grasp. The ponderous "Rastro 5" dedicated to Yugoslavian filmmaker Emir Kusturica sets the stage for the strangely tepid music that follows. The trio moves in languid motion over a slowly tumbling tempo, Vandermark's clarinet blowing dejected lines against the dull pulse of McBride's counterpoint. The bassist's own "Framinghammer" breaks ground with a similarly trudging beat anchored to a bass line rich in elasticity, but staid when comes to galvanizing energy. Vandermark's sifts through another series of phrases thick with Sandman's dust and the three sleepwalk through another tune.
Joe Morris receives predictable props on "Two" and its here where McBride and Newton first shake off the cobwebs and commence to cooking. Their rambunctious conversation at the tune's onset is a blast of refreshing brio, but the switch to seesaw arco, suspirating bass clarinet and swishing brushes once again undermines momentum. "Barker Waters," also the product of McBride's pen, begins with a clever clip-clop rhythm advanced by thrumming bass and sticks-on-rims. Vandermark's clarinet voices a line pocked by piquant trills and twitters as McBride and Newton prod and recede, but instead of reaching a rousing culmination the piece ends up dispersing into silence.
"F-Stop", a barn-storming action poem for American photographer Robert Frank, rallies around a hard-charging tempo and pugilistic tenor. It's a welcome thrill to hear Vandermark cut loose in a protracted spray of geysering notes. The rapacious din of "Hydro" has a comparable affect on the senses as stomping staccato blasts tussle with a roaring baritone sax filibuster. The closing "Tilted" carries a surprise honoree in bluesman Robert Pete Williams (proof again that artists of virtually any stripe can come under the umbrella of a Vandermark encomium). Despite solid playing and moments of strong synergy, this disc can't help but feel like a lesser effort in the context of the larger discographies of these three men.
What a difference a day (and drummer?) can make. Paal Nilssen-Love ignites a welcome bonfire under the feet of Vandermark and McBride, one that can conflagrate with white-hot intensity or smolder with a sizzling ember glow. FME (Free Music Ensemble) takes the simplicity of its moniker as a no-frills template. Listening to their style of free jazz, steeped as it is in the ESP/BYG esthetic and tinged with classic elements of European improv a seemingly incongruous analogy springs to mind, that of the Foo Fighters in the realm of alternative rock. Both bands embrace what is emblematic (though often deemed antiquated) in their respective genres and put a self-effacing, creative spin on the material.
Underground parses into four connected "Parts" ranging from 22 to 12 odd minutes in length. These pieces thread composed sketches with interludes of crackerjack improv. Also in play is Vandermark's customary practice of props parceling. Joe McPhee, Paul Lytton, Joe Morris and Peter Brötzmann are the recipients of bon mots this time out, no surprises there. The jolts and thrills are instead conveyed in the interplay, which resists the sort of easy noodling that can plague these sorts of longer excursions when the interplay lags. The trio's chosen insignia intimates a preoccupation with forward propulsion, but not at the expense of taking in passing scenery. "Part 1" opens with Vandermark's muscular baritone blustering over a choppy current stirred by throbbing bass and trip-hammer traps. A steady slide into a freeform section follows as flittering clarinet and lightly scraping arco are stamped by ricocheting snare tattoos. The segment finds resolution with a return to more structured surroundings by way of a tenor solo from Vandermark. His lithesome phrases unspool swiftly across a supple fluctuating groove by sculpted McBride and Nilssen-Love, one that ebbs prematurely.
More tenor fireworks signal the start of "Part 2" racing over a cascading tumult of bowed bass and a rising phalanx of cantankerous drums. The pattern of bookending freeform sections with tempo-driven blowing reverses on the final two cuts, which start slow and gain velocity as minutes tick off. Vandermark's ripping returns to baritone on "Part 3" and "Part 4" prove particularly adept in employing this tactic. On the former a serrated arco bass opening eventually expands to encompass the garrulous horn and clattering drums. His decision to incorporate his heavy axe so liberally into the action proves another inspired move. Nilssen-Love and McBride fulfill their roles beautifully, aggressively supporting Vandermark and engaging each other with an equal intensity. Their darting and colliding patterns during the early minutes of "Part 2" presages Vandermark's Dolphy-deferent musings on bass clarinet. The tight interplay sustained serves as a harbinger of the heavy funk flavor that rounds the piece out. At strategic points throughout the entire program each man craft solos that waste nary a gesture or a stroke. The precision coupled with pervasive athleticism makes the four lengthy cuts glide by.
These discs constitute two more slots filled Vandermark's ever-expanding stockpile of sessions. As with any sizeable repository there's a natural continuum in terms of content quality. The lugubrious academics that checker portions of the first disc may feel slightly static in comparison to the often full-tilt fervor of the second, but each holds merit. Given his past and present determination toward putting out as much product as possible, Vandermark seems unlikely to slacken the pace. For listeners with disposable income to burn it's a boon to be thankful for.
Triple Play - Gambit (Clean Feed)
Tracks: Rastro 5 (7:19)/ Framinghammer (7:20)/ Two (4:06)/ Barker Waters (7:53)/ F-Stop (5:38)/ Bird, Field (gray) (9:14)/ Hydro (5:44)/ Tilted (7:06).
Players: Ken Vandermark- reeds; Nate McBride- bass; Curt Newton- drums. Recorded: August 18 & 19, 2003, Martha's Vineyard, MA.
FME - Underground (Okkadisk)
Tracks: 1 (22:19)/ Part 2 (17:36)/ Part 3 (12:29)/ Part 4 (18:58).
Players: Paal Nilssen-Love- drums; Nate McBride- bass; Ken Vandermark- reeds. Recorded: December 16 & 17, 2003, Chicago, IL.