To some, what was so interesting and valuable about the nascent North Side Chicago scene in the early to mid 1990s had less to do with particular players than the fact that the scene was about cross-pollination. Figures like reedman Ken Vandermark could be heard amongst the riotous neo-No Wave band The Flying Luttenbachers one night, the pastoral freedom of the Boxhead Ensemble the next, and playing with his own quintet on Tuesday at the Empty Bottle.
Such interaction was bound to breed new approaches, blends of free-bop, open improvisation and punk rock swagger that have informed the aesthetics of Vandermark and his cohorts in a decidedly present manner. The multiplicity gleaned from such a fertile climate informs Bridge 61, an outgrowth of Spaceways, Inc. and the Vandermark Five, as it does Almanac, a Boston-derived recording that echoes the fluid principles of Chicago's finest.
Though the Vandermark Five's elements of style are now more defined, Vandermark himself remains far from pigeonholed, and the free jazz/rock hybrid Bridge 61, which he co-founded with drummer Tim Daisy, bassist Nate McBride and bass clarinetist Jason Stein, is pudding's proof. Journal, stretching its improvisational legs from tone poems to dense oration, is bookended by what appear to be rock songs. "Various Fires (For This Heat) begins with a heated baritone-percussion exchange recalling John Surman and Alan Jackson, before Stein's woody effusion and McBride's pliant electric bass enter in a lilting, delicate countermelody.
McBride's electric bass playing is infused with punk energy, gritty fuzzbox distortion and astounding technical fluidity, a manic anchor of contrasts fitting the flinty jousts and gutbucket skronk of the front line (and worlds away from his upright work). Daisy's playing is mature and stunning in an unaccompanied percussion solo reminiscent of Sven-Ake Johansson, a lengthy interlude that expands on the tune's melodic and rhythmic possibilities. Jagged West Coast heads normally shouldn't be mated with fuzzed-out progressive rock, but somehow it works to the effect of a fascinating song.
"Shatter (For Sonny Sharrock)" closes the album in a similar fashion, slippery atonal thematic material anchored by a driving electrified rhythm, more Mike Watt than Marzette Watts. Nevertheless, Vandermark's solo is pure free-blues preaching, and Journal contains some of the most honestly-spun R&B phrasing he's waxed on record (check his baritone work on "Various Fires for another example).
Stein, a new name to me, stands apart from the standard instrumental lineage. Whereas a player like Eric Dolphy or Michel Portal builds on wide intervallic leaps and verticality, Stein (like Michel Pilz, Rudi Mahall or John Tchicai) operates in a horizontal fashion, favoring a breadth of twists and turns more sideways than anything else. Even as he digs in (and does he ever) on the epic free-bop of "Atlas, worried phrases appear semi-isolated and played for sound's sake, albeit woven into a post-Ornette fabric.
McBride and Daisy are a powerhouse team, able to combine fragmentation, cutting-contest tempos and slinky rock rhythms into a disparate canvas for Stein and Vandermark to span, granting Journal a cohesive uniqueness.
Geoff Farina / Nate McBride / Luther Gray
McBride makes a home-turf appearance in Almanac's Boston-tied trio with drummer Luther Gray and guitarist Geoff Farina (better known for his work with progressive indie outfits Karate and Secret Stars). It's a dusky and somewhat cinematic ensemble that, unlike the work of guitarists Bill Frisell or Pat Metheny, places Americana in the angles of industry and depopulated canvases through a collectively wrangled freedom.
The opener, "Breccia, finds Farina awash in gauzy, buzzing tension and muted fuzz as McBride and Gray swirl around him, a husky physicality that counters the guitarist's ephemeral hum. Ambiguity and detachment pervade clean-picked bluesy lines on "Drumlin, an unsettlingly placid language surrounded by hushed-yet-vigorous swirls of woody thrum and muscular percussion.
Building on anthemic strums, Farina's tune "Hello Tamarat, Goodbye offers a reminder that coiled understatement and bare-bones approach are what have made him such a good songwriter, and it's interesting to hear "classic Farina applied in a loose, improvisational context. "Stream Piracy proceeds to stretch the fabric a little more, Farina offering broken twangs and tonal sinews, stretched as Gray constructs loose architecture around him; these plucks become floes for throaty compulsions on "Leone.
As with Journal, Almanac provides further fuel to the continually expanding fires of improvised music, a cross-pollination as much of the now as the ancient and leading to the never-heard-before.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Various Fires; Super Leggera; Atlas; Nothing's Open; 29 Miles Of Black Snow; A=A/b=b; Dark Blue, Bright Red; Shatter.
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: baritone and tenor saxophones, clarinet; Jason Stein: bass clarinet; Nate McBride: bass and electric bass; Tim Daisy: drums.
Tracks: Breccia; Drumlin; Particle; Hello Tamarat, Goodbye; Sonic Gobo; Absolute Age; Stream Piracy; Leone; Heart Of Mica; Craton.
Personnel: Geoff Farina: electric guitar; Nate McBride: bass; Luther Gray: drums.