Reissuing a Ken Vandermark album may seem like a curious endeavor. The highly prolific reed player has only been recording professionally for roughly a decade, hardly enough time for recent portions of his catalog to go out of print. But when you consider that like many of his peers the bulk of Vandermark’s work is on small independent labels the reason behind the demise of some his titles becomes less elusive. Fortunately Atavistic has chosen to reissue this excellent date from a mere three years ago (originally issued on Eigth Day Music), a quartet affair featuring Vandermark in the company of three fellow Chicagoans, two of whom are members of his most high profile group the Vandermark 5.
Vandermark isn’t shy about professing the influence of Eric Dolphy on his style and in his playing. At a recent trio concert I was fortunate enough to attend he cycled through a program of pieces, half of which were Dolphy penned. This disc, more than any I’ve heard captures the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) Dolphyisms in his sound. The melodic jumps and twists, the keening, whimsical urgency and the gorgeously bent tones; all of these echo the spirit of Dolphy and Vandermark never fails to use them to imaginative and captivating advantage. On the opening “No Go” dedicated to Dexter Gordon he crafts a solo that straddles ‘inside’ melodic runs with spiraling upper register squeals and guttural low register honks. Baker, Kessler and Mulvenna stoke a solid rhythmic fire underneath giving the saxophonist the space to stretch out. There’s a chamber-like formality to Vandermark’s opening strains with bass clarinet on “Non-Confirmation,” but soon the familiar harmonic leaps crop up in a solo that incorporates a broad range of the instrument’s unique sonorities.
Baker is kind of a tough player to gauge. Throughout parts of the program he strikes an uneasy balance between straight and skewed playing that fits well with the group, but leaves the impression that he’s somewhat unsure of where to stand particularly during the ensemble sections. Kessler and Mulvenna are less tenuous, perhaps because of their heightened familiarity with one another, though all three men hatch upon a consistently challenging rhythmic structure for Vandermark to scale. One of the best examples is on the frenetically deployed “Explosive Motor,” a piece dedicated to Jimmy Lyons, where Kessler’s rubber band bass string snaps and Baker’s cascading chords underlie Vandermark’s emphatic tenor blowing. Mulvenna’s drums are a model of firmness and finesse, painting an effulgent spectrum of percussive colors.
With such a diverse number of projects to his name Vandermark’s output can be kind of intimidating. Proper points of ingress into his work are highly subjective and dependent on what side of Vandermark’s multifarious personality you want to explore. Few if any of his releases capture all of his interests, but this one comes close to showing off all of his major traits as a player and it does so in a highly accessible setting.
Tracks:No Go/ Non-Confirmation/ Situation Travesty/ Explosive Motor/ A Memory of No Thoughts/ Chump Change/ Correlative Amnesia/ Telleferro/ Tableau Shot.
Players:Ken Vandermark- reeds; Jim Baker- piano; Kent Kessler- bass; Tim Mulvenna- drums.
Recorded: April 5 & 6, 1996, Chicago, IL.
Atavistic on the web: http://www.atavistic.com