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Joe Morris/Ken Vandermark/Luther Gray
Ken Vandermark/Pandelis Karayorgis
In the Daniel Kraus documentary on Ken Vandermark, the saxophonist is shown writing music, organizing tours, traveling to and playing gigs, the typical life of the titular Musician. What comes out of the film is some insight into a player who is known mainly through his numerous projects and prolific album output. Sometimes Vandermark can seem like the kid in high school who stayed at home working while everyone else was out on the golf course drinking beer. Perhaps he even was that kid but the results speak for themselves.
He is so dynamic an organizer and writes so much music that often his actual playing gets overshadowed. Certainly his style is unmistakable. Three albums though find him out of the role of a leader and playing music other than his own. Listeners will come away from the discs appreciating Vandermark the player and teammate and also gain increased appreciation on his own composing when contrasted against that of others.
Rebus is a trio under the presumed leadership of Joe Morris though nothing on the CD indicates this (no writing credits for the six pieces, entitled "Rebus 1 through 6). And though Morris had recorded with Vandermark twice before (in 1996 and 1998), it is a relatively young relationship compared with his other affiliations (Morris also had a Vandermark tune dedicated to him on the Vandermark 5's Burn the Incline). The music contained on Rebus, a word defined as a representation, is fascinating for its perpendicular nature. With Luther Gray's solid and expansive drumming, Morris and Vandermark play against each other, the former working vertically while the latter moves horizontally. This creates a tension that contrasts Vandermark in his own group, where forward movement generates much of the momentum. Here, on four tracks over 10 minutes and two at under 6, the music grows outwards, circular almost, appropriately to the title more representational than declarative. Also, Vandermark is heard exclusively on tenor sax, a deferential move since his baritone can dominate most proceedings.
On the same disc with the song in tribute of Joe Morris, another piece was for pianist Pandelis Karayorgis. The pair had recorded once before in a 1999 trio with bassist Nate McBride. On Foreground Music they are found in the intimacy of a duo, sharing song-writing responsibilities. Vandermark wrote all new music for the collaboration and sticks to tenor saxophone and clarinet. The opportunity to hear him in subtle dialogue with a pianist is intriguing. None of the usual bombast is here and even Vandermark's pieces seem geared towards the understated (though some of them are ripe for reworking for the Vandermark 5). And on the Karayorgis pieces, Vandermark is almost sedate, with little overblowing or punctuation. If Rebus is afternoon music, Foreground Music is there for settling in before bed.
But between them is music for a night out. And fulfilling that role is Bridge 61 with Vandermark, McBride, Vandermark 5 drummer Tim Daisy and bass clarinetist Jason Stein. The group existed but briefly and this is their only document, which is unfortunate. All the fire of the Vandermark 5 is here, with Vandermark using his full arsenal of horns. What distinguishes this album is the muscular songwriting of McBride and Daisy, players who have worked with Vandermark long enough to write towards his strengths (and he towards theirs). Many of Vandermark's recent projects, even including the Vandermark 5 since cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm joined, have moved towards the reflective (in relative terms). This session, recorded in 2005, is instead the brawny Vandermark.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Rebus 1-6
Personnel: Joe Morris: guitar: Ken Vandermark: tenor sax; Luther Gray: drums.
Tracks: Lifgatowy; United Forces of One; JCT; The Clincher; Dreamless; Betwixt Title Without Year; Of Two Minds; Absolute Camel
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: reeds; Pandelis Karayorgis: piano.
Tracks: Various Fires (For This Heat); Superleggera; Atlas; Nothing's New; 29 Miles Of Black Snow; A=A/b=b; Dark Blue, Bright Red; Shatter.
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet; Jason Stein: bass clarinet; Nate McBride: acoustic and electric bass; Tim Daisy: drums.