Multi-instrumentalist, composer, and bandleader Ken Vandermark has led his flagship ensemble, the Vandermark 5, through a decade's worth of personnel changes. Despite the band's rotating roster, the ensemble's sound has remained remarkably consistent. A powerhouse unit capable of serene delicacy as well as unfettered intensity, the quintet has won a legion of fans the world over for its uncompromising vision of contemporary creative improvised music.
The current line-up has been active for three years now, documented on two remarkable studio records, A Discontinuous Line (Atavistic, 2006) and Beat Reader (Atavistic, 2008). Annular Gift is this incarnation's first live album, documenting in crystal clear sound their unflagging energy and dynamic sensibility over two nights (March 14 & 15, 2009) at the internationally renowned jazz club Alchemia, in Krakow, Poland.
The mammoth opener "Spiel (for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill)" showcases the remarkable versatility of the newest member, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Negotiating the lengthy tune's numerous dramatic shifts, Longberg-Holm alternates between amplified and acoustic sonorities, veering from coruscating feedback to spectral pointillism. Typical of Vandermark's episodic writing, the piece eschews standardized forms, modulating through a series of stylistic changes that range from metallic funk to austere neo-classicism. The rhythm section gracefully complies with each transition as Vandermark's brawny tenor cries and tranquil clarinet musings contrast with Dave Rempis' serpentine alto salvos.
The thorny harmonic changes of the boppish "Table, Skull, and Bottles (for Bruno Johnson)" provide fodder for a string of pungent soliloquies, including an especially trenchant alto screed from Rempis. Taking advantage of a brief respite, Vandermark reveals his bluesy lyricism on the somber beginning of "Early Color (for Saul Leiter)," before the piece builds to a caterwauling finale. Kent Kessler's quicksilver bass technique introduces the robust swinger "Second Marker (for Ab Baars)" and drummer Tim Daisy provides the labyrinthine "Cement (for Michael Haberz)" with a hypnotic groove, fueling Lonberg-Holm's kaleidoscopic ruminations and a climactic tenor saxophone duel between Vandermark and Rempis. The entire ensemble contributes to the punchy closer "Cadmium Orange (for Francis Bacon)," ending the set with a rousing assault of jagged angles and pugilistic downbeats.
For many reasons, working groups tend to be an unfortunate rarity in today's jazz scene. For 11 years Vandermark has done a phenomenal job of keeping this group together, and not only vitalbut inspiring. Annular Gift proves their second decade looks to be as promising as their first.
Spiel (for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill); Table, Skull, and Bottles (for Bruno Johnson); Early Color (for Saul Leiter); Second Marker (for Ab Baars); Cement (for Michael Haberz); Cadmium Orange (for Francis Bacon).
Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone, Bb clarinet; Dave Rempis: alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello, electronics; Kent Kessler: bass; Tim Daisy: drums.