The Resonance Ensemble: Kafka In Flight (2011)
It may subvert expectations to note that the "resonance" in this group's name is with the big bands of the 1940s and '50s, rather than any forbidding improv austerity. Kafka In Flight, the third release by Chicago reedman/composer Ken Vandermark's multinational aggregation, follows the Live In Lviv (Not Two, 2008) LP and eponymous ten-CD set (Not Two, 2009), which announced their presence on the wider stage with some chutzpah. In the liners, Vandermark attributes his enduring attachment to writing for bigger groups as deriving partly from his early exposure, but also from the phenomenal experience it supplies. Listening to the three cuts on this live recording of a European tour, culminating in Gdansk, Poland, it's easy to understand what he means.
Vandermark makes full use of the resources and textures available within the ten-piece group, deploying the ensemble in varying combinations from full band to solo. Each track is multi-sectioned, allowing natural evolution to contrast with abrupt changes in dynamics or tempo. In some ways, they come on like a scaled-up version of the leader's accomplished workhorse, the Vandermark 5and in case anyone is wondering, that's intended as a huge complimentalthough as the liners explain, limited rehearsal time meant that complex written parts had to be thrown out of the window in favor of thematic material that could be quickly absorbed along with modular improvisational strategies. Nonetheless, the charts and subsequent extemporizations hang together beautifully ,creating powerful and absorbing statements.
"The Pier" provides a good illustration: the mournful themes are interspersed with animated expositions in carefully worked settings. Between Steve Swell's unpredictable trombone rumination over a relaxed lope at the start, and the tutti horn ending some 17 minutes later, come a variety of interludes, including a passage for buoyant bass clarinet punctuated by horn riffs, a trio of percolating clarinets, a percussion duo, a duet for bassist Mark Tokar's creaking arco and Per-Åke Holmlander's flexible tuba, an a capella tenor saxophone outpouring from the leader, and an exciting dog fight between trumpeter Magnus Broo and an alto saxophone, high above the massed ranks. That account also gives a clue to one of the few downsides: the lack of identification of soloists. While Vandermark's brawny exhortations and longtime associate saxophonist Dave Rempis' fluent stylings might be recognizable, few are likely to discern the contributions of Polish reedmen Wacław Zimpel and Mikołaj Trzaska, or be able to distinguish between the timbral interplay of drummers Tim Daisy and Michael Zerang.
All three cuts in the hour-long program contain a similar range of delights and sustain repeated listening. As these players get to know each other more, it's easy to wonder what they might have achieved, given sufficient opportunity to master Vandermark's more challenging gambits, and hope that it comes to pass.
Track Listing: The Pier (for Yutaka Takanishi); Rope (for Don Ellis); Coal Marker (for Chris Marker).
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone, Bb clarinet; Dave Rempis: alto and tenor saxophones; Steve Swell: trombone; Mark Tokar: bass; Mikołaj Trzaska: alto saxophone, bass clarinet; Michael Zerang: drums; Wacław Zimpel: Bb and bass clarinets, taragato; Magnus Broo: trumpet; Tim Daisy: drums; Per-Åke Holmlander: tuba.
Record Label: Not Two Records