Despite many attempts to compartmentalize it, jazzlike most thingsisn't any one thing. Instead, it's a broader continuum of artists exploring different areas. Only a relative few actually manage to not only travel along the greater length of that continuum, but actually push its boundaries. Artists who do this are often relegated to relative obscurityoften only appreciated later in life or, worse, after death.
Now in his early forties, reed multi-instrumentalist Ken Vandermark isn't exactly a household name to those who think jazz starts and ends with names like Diana Krall and Michael Bublé. Still, in the short space of a dozen years, he's emerged as one of jazz's most significant voices. Winner of the 1999 McArthur "Genius granttypically awarded to more established artists like Anthony Braxtonhe's rapidly developed a reputation as fearless improviser and progressive compositional thinker. The far-reaching Vandermark 5 is his flagship group, despite representing only a third of the 24 albums he's released under his own name and the more than fifty recordings by others on which he's appeared.
The Color of Memory goes a long way to consolidating Vandermark's vision on a series of eight long-form compositions spread over two discs. While unbridled freedom of expression is a given with Vandermark, as with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmannwith whom he continues to work as part of the Chicago Tentetit's clearly directed. There may be passages where one or more soloists are given free reign to go where they may; but when the rhythm abruptly shifts, or a two-horn phrase emerges as a segue to another segment, a greater logic and a more defined arc are at work.
Nowhere is this more evident than on "Camera (for Edward Weston), the longest piece of the set at nearly nineteen minutes. While one would be hard-pressed to call what Vandermark does lyrical in any conventional sense, the piece's moody and spacious introduction is just the beginning of a journey that ranges from the strongly defined to the completely chaotic. Just when one thinks things can't get any freer or wilder, a phrase emerges to signal yet another shift.
Vandermark never loses sight of the jazz traditionhe just finds ways to honour it and challenge it at the same time. "Pieces of the Past (for Joseph H. Lewis) begins with a comfortable swing, with trombonist Jeb Bishop as close to centre as you're apt to hear; but before you can get too comfortable, a unison line by Bishop, Vandermark, and saxophonist Dave Rempis signals an abrupt stop, and bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Daisy shift gears into a 6/4 rhythm for Rempis that combines extremes with a deeper appreciation of the blues.
All in a day's work for Vandermark, whose encyclopaedic knowledge just seems to expand with each passing year. The Color of Memory is another milestone in a career that seems to comprise nothing but milestones, with nary a misstep to be found.
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Personnel: Jeb Bishop: trombone; Tim Daisy: drums; Kent Kessler: bass; Dave Rempis: saxophones;
Ken Vandermark: reeds.