Free Music Ensemble: Cuts (2005)
The moniker of Chicago reeds player Ken Vandermark's Free Music Ensemble is somewhat misleading. Yes, the music of this trio of Vandermark, Chicago bassist Nate McBride, and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is as improvisation-based as any Vandermark band to date. The very nature of the group's musical process ensures that every FME performance is a unique one. And yes, their stylistic variety and constructive openness is vast enough to be seemingly without limit. Sounds free enough, doesn't it?
Yet devotees of no-discussion-let's-just-play free-jazz honkfests, despite the frequent qualitative shortcomings of that approach, might not know what to make of the FME's sophomore release, Cuts. The band's pieces are constructed out of Vandermark-composed musical phrases, sections, and strategies that can placed in a modular fashion in different places (the beginning, say, instead of the end of a constructed "tune ); some of these same phrases can be played by different members of the band (Nilssen-Love, say, instead of Vandermark) and on successive nights, a different member can, as it were, be "driving (providing the necessary cues that keep the music happening).
What this means is that underneath the often-dazzling improvisation and virtuosic group-mind interplay is some rather rigorous and fertile composed musical substance that keeps the ensemble's sets underpinned by an inherently metamorphorsing but concrete collection of, well, songs.
This kind of musical presentation requires a touring band; it takes repeated performances for any group to achieve the ideal awareness required to naturally reincorporate these modules and at the same time really play free in these structures. Cuts can be thought of as the last "show on a 2004 European FME tour, as it was studio-recorded immediately after the tour ended. This gives us a recorded document of the band as agile and as familiar with the material as possible.
The result's pretty dazzling. The 75-minute disc has only five tunesbut each piece is a multipart suite comprised of the aforementioned modules, and the band's playing is overwhelming, glorious evidence that its particular musical strategy isn't just interesting or novel: it actually produces good music.
Vandermark excels on his usual selection of reeds, whether he's playing an almost Dolphyesque blues on bass clarinet on the "Hundred Yards section of "Static (A Hundred Yards) Static, working an R&B tenor groove on ""Broken (Sentence) Broken or blowing European-style free energy phrases on the "Reset portion of "Necessary?/Reset/Slip. Nilssen-Love's a ferocious and imaginative kit drummer; the group's music on the "Necessary section of "Necessary?/Reset/Slip seems to sway and shimmer around his shifting, crisp and intricate patterns. McBride somehow finds his sonic space between these two sonic leviathans, excelling on arco and plucked bass throughout.
A short review can't do justice to the musical range or dynamic ebb of this recording. The long silences that wrap around the instruments on "Static (A Hundred Yards) Static and "Broken (Sentence) Broken ) underline the role of process and time in this music, and the corresponding time the listener puts into experiencing Cuts will pay off handsomely. This is a remarkable group captured at the peak of its powers.
Track Listing: Other Side Up/Boadas; Necessary?/Reset/Slip; Static (A Hundred Yards) Static; Broken (Sentence) Broken; Heavy Light.
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet; Paal Nilssen-Love: drums; Nate McBride: bass