With much anticipation and very little fanfare, Ken Vandermark’s “5” walked on to the un-mic’d floor of Lil’ Brothers, a local tavern. That he worked from the floor, as opposed to the platform where the three-chords-and-a-stagediving-bruisefest were to take place later that night, was as significant as the music they would play. Vandermark, the recent recipient of a MacArthur genius grant, chose to base himself and his bands out of Chicago (not New York) and to record on the small but excellent labels Atavistic, Okka, and Delmark. His conscious choices are about the responsibility and apparent obligation he feels to this music and the musicians who play it and have played it. For instance each song on his recordings is dedicated to a significant jazz musician, some you’ve heard of and other you better check out.
The band of trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Kent Kessler, drummer Tim Mulvenna, alto and tenor saxophonist Dave Rempis and Ken Vandermark playing tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet opened with Ornette Coleman’s “Happy House.” Like all the music the quintet would play in the show, the opener was played in a brief (under six-minute) manner. Vandermark’s arrangements suggest discipline. Snap. The front line plays the chorus and as Vandermark maintains the frame of reference of the song, alto saxophonist Rempis blurts a brief fiery line (that ends way too short for my tastes.)
Subsequant songs unfolded V5’s presentation of jazz as jukebox fodder. “Ground” was played as a post-funk/post-modern groove with Rempis blowing a Marshall Allen-like solo before Vandermark took his turn at a Brotzmann power blast. Even as they ran the new composition “Coast To Coast” with it’s Splatter Trio opening, I was on to their tight ensemble approach with compact (yet intense) soloing and tight arrangements.
Their latest recording Burn The Incline (Atavistic) is an excellent representation of how tight this band plays live. They covered several tracks from this release including “Roulette” a four and one half-minute theme song for the coolest cop show you’ve never seen. The music they play is almost pop music for jazz ears. No, that doesn’t mean it’s ‘lite’ or fusion, it means that Vandermark dishes his compositions in edible chunks. Remember when the ‘out there’ musicians like Thelonious Monk did exactly that. They wrote small bite music. It was digestible and for Monk danceable. Vandermark does the same like on the orchestrated hard-bop “Heads Up” and the film noir-ish “In Focus.” What a concept, edible avant-music, it’s appetizing, sustained, and know what? It’s good for you.