‘Free jazz’- a signifier both lionized and demonized depending on the audience and the inclination. Its exact definitions are as protean as the tides but in the grand tradition of giving personage to the abstract few better archetypes exist than the DKV Trio. Ostensibly fronted by Ken Vandermark, a transplanted Bostonian whose Chicago roots now run to the very core of that city’s enviable music scene, the outfit remains among the highest profile and most rigorously touring tentacles in the reedman’s Hydra-like arsenal of ensembles.
Attributing the band solely to his pilotage ignores the egalitarian acronym chosen as their calling card and dismisses the guiding credo of collective improvisation that fuels the majority of their musical flights. Here is a band best heard in the fire-breathing flesh where the visual can collide catalytically with the auditory in the spontaneous birthing of sight and sound. Witnessing Drake make use of all surfaces of his kit from tautly stretched skins to gleaming metal bracings and screws, a flurry of motion that translates into a continuous polyrhythmic blur. Kessler hunched and sweat-sodden, fingers hovering heatedly against his strings, tugging out tightly wound walking lines. Vandermark leaning white-lipped into his horn, loosing vampish volleys of notes and working the action of his instrument’s keys in a repetitive code of clandestine gestures. The particulars of the trio’s discography bear out this preference for real-time creation in the company of an expectant crowd. The bulk of entries are concert dates and this recent Okka offering continues the cycle by circulating the results of two more tour stops. Disc one includes a complete show while its companion presents a spliced amalgam of two sets. Track demarcations on both discs are purely for convenience sake and do not disrupt the perpetual flow of music.
Don Cherry, an admitted favorite of Vandermark’s and a former employer of Drake’s, serves as the primary source of thematic material, but anthems by Ellington and Ayler also make fleeting appearances. The reedman is careful to point out in his liners that the outside composers’ works are really only transitory springboards for internal improvisation. As a result, though they share obvious programmatic correlates both dates yield decidedly different renditions. On the initial sally through three Cherry classics the trio sounds off emphatically with Vandermark’s economical tenor leading the charge. He later loses some steam and resorts to stock phrasings, but Kessler and Drake refuse to let him rest. On the closing section of “The Thing” and the initial minutes of “Brown Rice” Kessler’s bow shears a shifting swathe of mahogany textures that expands in the wake of an uneasy start. Disc one holds slight edge if only for the inspired inclusion of Joe McPhee’s haunting “Good-Bye Tom B,” but each one effectively presents the trio doing what it does best. Perhaps even more useful this set acts an ideal litmus test for those definition-obsessed listeners searching for the perfect encapsulation of free jazz, a medium that like all incarnations of living, breathing music cannot be contained by convenient terminology or precept.
Okka Disk on the web: http://www.okkadisk.com
Personnel: Ken Vandermark- reeds; Kent Kessler- bass; Hamid Drake- drums. Recorded: March 24, 2001, Rochester (disc one) and March 31, 2001, Kalamazoo (disc two).