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Ken Vandermark is not one to limit himself to easy, comfortable situations. As successful as the Vandermark 5 is, it presents only one side to his composing and playing. With the Free Music Ensemble, a cooperative trio with bassist Nate McBride and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, listeners, whether on their second disc Cuts or live at Tonic mid September, can hear a more visceral, looser Vandermark, happy to be swept up by the improvisational thrusts of his fellow musicians.
The band began in 2001, only releasing one limited edition CD in 2002 and then following that up with 2004's Underground. The disc that preceded Cuts laid the groundwork for the group's mission: Vandermark compositions (of a very different ilk than his Vandermark 5 pieces) fleshed out to have long improvised segments and segues. The leaderless nature of the bandname represents how effectively any of the three can grasp the music, manipulate it for themselves, and then throw the results back at the others for similar processes.
And while Underground was a fine record full of compelling moments, Cuts advances the concept further and introduces more suite-like thinking. Instead of single tunes, themes are strung together, creating tapestries of more varied texture. At Tonic last month, with an album's worth of unrecorded material, this approach was done even more expertly.
Since this is a saxophone trio, a format that has a long history in jazz, the musical scholarship of Vandermark is better utilized. And since he had long standing relationship with the "rhythm section, particularly Nilssen-Love on two amazing duo records, the two volumes of Dual Pleasure, the shared responsibility is a joyous rather than a weighty one. Because the group tours with some regularity and plays a fine, raucous concert when they do, further albums should continue the group's artistic rise. For now, Cuts is a fascinating snapshot of a hypercreative band in the midst of discovering themselves and what can be done when new thinking is applied to established forms.