Fans of Chicago's incredibly prolific Ken Vandermark will no doubt appreciate the fresh angle his V5 group has placed on these nine tunes, each dedicated to a distinct artist from independent-minded filmmaker John Cassavetes to R&B hero Otis Redding. It feels something like the double set of Free Jazz Classics (officially released in 2002) in its combination of focus and freedom, though this time around there's more of a backbeat in the mix and the pieces are all written by the leader. An impressive sixth effort.
Cohesion has always been a hallmark of this quintet, there's nothing new in that regard. The group comes first, period. Toward the end of the soft but dark Cassavetes dedication "Staircase," bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Daisy engage in a slender dialogue where Kessler's undulating, dipping melody falls evenly into a combination of regular cymbal timekeeping and unpredictable tom hits. When the horns come back they feel like they've always been there, but by the starkly dissonant closure they more than communicate their message.
"Honey Down" (for Rahsaan Roland Kirk) has the forward energy that marks a third of these pieces. Short unison horn phrases over uneven, off-the-beat rhythms crash into an urgent Coltrane-esque saxophone melody, which then segues directly into rough, jubilant funk. Daisy is most impressive here in his ability to keep the rhythm in the pocket without ever letting it become expected.
Timid listeners will likely squirm by the time the sharp and noisy "Confluence" (for Sonny Rollins) comes around to close the record. The group does not hold back here. Of course, their ability to gallop unbridled through periods of energy and free-ish improv has never been a shortcoming. But true to the spirit of Sonny, they balance warmth with more than a hint of a spiritual call. (It's too late to get the limited edition live Rollins tribute that came with the first 1500 copies of the record, sorry.)
As a conceptual project, Airports for Light is an unqualified success. It takes many listens to fully appreciate the relationships between the tunes and the dedicatees, altogether a fun game that reveals layers of meaning in the music. The record might not be the most consistent thing the V5 has ever done, but that's not really the point, I think.
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