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Vandermark 5: Free Jazz Classics - Live at the Empty Bottle

Todd R. Brown By

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Tucked away inside 1,000 specially marked packages of the Vandermark 5's latest CD, Burn the Incline , lucky fans can find a bonus disc featuring a live set by the group performing "free jazz classics."

The concert was recorded earlier this year at the Empty Bottle club, a cornerstone of Chicago's free jazz/fusion renaissance. Reedsman Ken Vandermark, the V5's leader, has single-handedly spearheaded the Windy City's renewed interest in improvised music.

The songs on Free Jazz Classics are played with the vigor and rhythmic dynamism typical of Vandermark's flagship group. Selections range from Joe McPhee's mellow, noirish "Goodbye Tom B." to Lester Bowie's stylistically wide-ranging, 15-minute long "New York is Full of Lonely People."

Kicking off the CD's theme with appropriate skronk and percussive scuffle is Ornette Coleman's "Happy Hour," which Coleman originally recorded with his electric combo Prime Time for 1988's Virgin Beauty album. Vandermark briefly trades sax licks with band mate Dave Rempis midway through the tune that both complement each other and push each musician to intriguing heights of improvisation.

A particular highlight of the disc is an interpretation of Cecil Taylor's "Conquistador Pt. 2." Played without a piano (the 5 consists of trombone, guitar, bass, drums and various reeds), the group nevertheless conveys the avant-garde challenge of Taylor's ivory-tickling skill. Vandermark in particular evokes the lyrical and up-front style Ken McIntyre infused Taylor's 1966 album Unit Structures with.

Another high-quality rendition the quintet pulls off is their take on Sun Ra's "Saturn." Beginning with a somewhat Eastern-sounding bass riff, the tune segues into its hard-bop essence, during which trombonist Jeb Bishop shows off his fine chops while the rest of the band swings out full-throttle.

Towards the end of the song, the two reedsmen trade up-tempo bars in a captivating example of cutting heads that perfectly demonstrates the musicians' well-rehearsed versatility.

All of the numbers on the disc come across with both grace and fire befitting their composers, and the performances impressively convey that the Vandermark 5 are one of today's most consistently rewarding jazz ensembles to listen to, despite a few minor personnel changes over the years.

The group's homage to these avant-garde classics shows both a love of the free jazz tradition and a willingness to use the music's history as stepping-off point for further exploration — be it in terms of arrangement, fusion jamming or a style of composition that toys with the vocabulary of improvised music while reinforcing a dedication to rhythmic cohesion that has the power to draw in more trad-minded listeners.

Ken Vandermark has played with a bewildering number of groups whose members have included Chicago pianist Jim Baker and radical reedsman Peter Brötzmann, not to mention his work with alt-rockers Superchunk and members of Chicago's Jesus Lizard.

He's chosen to honor artists ranging from the obscure yet ingenious saxophonist Joe Harriott to soul supergroup Funkadelic. He's received praise by not only establishment press like Downbeat but alternative music magazines such as Spin. In recognition of his prolific and often dazzling contribution to modern jazz, he received a generous grant from the prestigious MacArthur Foundation in 1999.

And he's sure to keep pointing new fans and young musicians toward valuable artists of the past — even as his innovation helps to further the future of jazz to come. Vandermark shows on this live album that he's not only an inspired musician, but a brilliant interpreter of jazz music as well.

Track listing:Happy House (Ornette Coleman), 69L (Anthony Braxton), Conquistador Pt. 2 (Cecil Taylor), Goodbye Tom B. (Joe McPhee), Saturn (Sun Ra), Gazzelloni (Eric Dolphy), New York Is Full of Lonely People (Lester Bowie).

Personnel: Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Kent Kessler (bass), Tim Mulvenna (drums), Dave Rempis (alto sax).

For more on the various works of Ken Vandermark, check out the comprehensive Web page hosted by Northwestern University's WNUR-FM (

Title: Free Jazz Classics - Live at the Empty Bottle | Year Released: 2000 | Record Label: Atavistic Worldwide


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