For reasons that cannot be explained, I have taken on the task of examining Jerry Lewis’ film career. Not having seen a Lewis movie for twenty-five years, I stumbled upon the original Nutty Professor
late one night on cable. Jerry plays a klutz college instructor/scientist who comes upon a secret formula which transforms him into a sixties hipster, with all its jazz and fashion applications. Now before dismissing me, and the entire country of France that has designated him a comic genius, let’s relive Lewis’ career. Not merely kitsch, the humor of Lewis and Dean Martin originated in nightclubs before being transformed to film. Sure Lewis made loud, large gestures, but much of the (let’s call it) call-and-response between Dean and Jerry was subtle nuance and very hip banter. As a child, my parents rolled their eyes and wondered why they’re first-born male loved these movies. I’d like to think it was for the reckless, almost improvisational manner Jerry Lewis went about his craft and the inclusion of jazz and jazz musicians in many scenes.
During the period of this retrospective of the Lewis oeuvre, I came across the new release by Steam, Ken Vandermark’s Chicago quartet. Recorded in 1996, before The MacArthur Foundation bestowed its genius grant upon the now 36 year-old, Real Time has one foot planted inside tradition and the other headed toward planets unknown. Vandermark’s rise and Chicago’s new music tradition have been intertwined. His many projects have included The Flying Luttenbachers an all attitude punk/jazz ensemble, The Vandermark Five, Caffeine, DKV, work with the late Hal Russell and his NRG Ensemble, plus sideman appearances with Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafsson, and the AALY Trio.
Steam, like Caffeine, includes pianist Jim Baker. His presence ties Vandermark to jazz tradition, but in no way restricts the outer edge (witnessed by the self-titled Caffeine Okka disc 1994). The remaining cast includes Vandermark Five musicians, Kent Kessler and Tim Mulvenna. The music, all originals by either Vandermark or Baker, is dedicated to the likes of Deter Gordon, Herbie Nichols, Booker Ervin, and Jimmy Lyons. “No Go” a reference to Gordon’s 1962 Blue Note album GO! adheres to a bebop spirit, without emulating a bebop sound. Take “Non-Confirmation,” Kessler lays down a bass line that allows room for Charlie Parker, but Vandermark goes for a bass clarinet straight out of Dolphy and Baker dances the keyboards more like Dave Burrell than Hank Jones. This is inside-out playing by students of jazz history, not slaves to jazz history. Vandermark shows an affinity for Peter Brotzmann’s free-blowing on “Explosive Motor.” The powerful seven minutes chocked full of loud, large gestures is a controlled explosion. The quartet (unlike many an outside group) knows where the music is heading. It’s a tight ship, the mayhem is directed and no one gets hurt. That’s not to say there aren’t mellow moments here. The ballad “A Memory Of No Thoughts” is as lovely as any in the Ben Webster tradition. Rarely has 63 minutes of music held my attention as Steam does.
Genius is a term applied to the much-misunderstood Jerry Lewis, and genius was a label gifted upon Ken Vandermark. Vandermark, like Lewis in black and white, is in full control of his craft. Vandermark is working a less populist arena of avant jazz, but his gift is being recognized by an every growing fan base. With Steam, a few more traditional jazz fans should be coaxed to step out on the ledge.
Track List:No Go; Non-Confirmation; Situation Travesty; Explosive Motor; A Memory Of No Thoughts; Chump Change; Correlative Amnesia; Tellefero; Tableau Shot.