Ken Vandermark: Vandermark 5, Free Fall, Sonore & Territory Band

Clifford Allen By

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Reedman, composer and bandleader Ken Vandermark is an artist not only of diverse talents—he's a tireless organizer and fulcrum of numerous scenes both in his adopted hometown of Chicago as well as western Europe—but also a diversifier of his talents. In the past decade and a half, his arsenal of saxophones and clarinets and his compositional book have been spread across a staggering array of ensembles, from duos to orchestras.

Some of these projects have had a specific goal in mind, like exploring the music of Joe Harriott, George Clinton or Sun Ra, while others have allowed the structure of the band to shape those goals (Sonore; The Vandermark Five). Four recent releases explore the breadth of Vandermark's work, the ringleader often in roles that subsume his own place for that of the greater ensemble.

The Vandermark Five
Beat Reader

The Vandermark Five is Ken Vandermark's working unit, now into its second decade of activity mostly documented (apart from two releases on Not Two) by Atavistic Records. Beat Reader, the group's twelfth release, finds cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm more fully integrated into the proceedings as a third voice in the front line, his "anti-cellist" persona a bit more tempered to the benefit of the music's flow. As ever, the Five's strong suit seems to be in album openers (one thing they've carried over from the rock world), and "Friction" is as strong a hook as anything Vandermark's ever penned. Granted, it's a nearly nine-minute hook with some powerfully opposing time signatures, bass clarinet and alto stating the theme's bluesy tone- row lilt over triple-time percussion and massive arco fiddling.

Though Vandermark is the nominal leader and first out of the gate with wide interval leaps on the low horn, the relentless rhythm support and excellent playing from front-line partners surely make this a cooperative effort. Altoist Dave Rempis is positively ebullient atop a Talisker-esque waltzing string section midway through the opener.

Though rock-rhythm writing isn't always Vandermark's strongest suit, Rempis and Lonberg-Holm are effectively propelled by the colorful tensions of "New Acrylic," a collision of classic free-bop and garish rock energy befitting the tune's dedicatee, photographer Andreas Gursky. Certainly, Beat Reader is another fine notch in the V5's discography.

Free Fall
The Point in a Line
Smalltown Superjazzz

Free Fall takes its name, of course, from the final studio recording of clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre's trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow, and The Point in a Line is their third disc together. This trio joins Vandermark's Bb and bass clarinet with Norwegian pianist Havard Wiik and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten on a number of compositions and improvisations by members of the trio.

It is important to realize that this band is not entirely in homage to Giuffre—after all, his music retained a wide-open Texas swagger, even as they explored delicate counterpoint and microtonal extended techniques. Free Fall is classically poised in vignettes of contrast, often between the meatiness of bass and bass clarinet and Wiik's peerless piano mobiles, though Vandermark's "Eulogy for a Typewriter" approaches the sparse canvas of Morton Feldman—surely an exploration of tonal space far from the group's namesake.

Only The Devil Has No Dreams

Sonore is a cooperative trio made up of, essentially, the saxophone section of German reedman Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet: Brotzmann, Vandermark and Swede Mats Gustafsson. Only The Devil Has No Dreams is their second recorded meeting. Unlike Rova or the World Saxophone Quartet, Sonore relies on collective improvisation to generate structure, and as it is a collective venture, roles aren't defined as such—rather, choices are made and followed or abandoned, leading to a character that's not always easy to pin down. It's a natural flow of personalities into sonic areas, utterly non-hierarchical and keyed into the decade-long relationship these three reedmen have enjoyed, transcendent of their respective arsenals.

The opening improvisation, "Straight into the Light," hearkens back to the unruly front line of Machine Gun as it builds rhythm, and one might expect clanging percussive salvos to hit in the ensuing moments. However, rather than stay the juggernaut course, the trio spiral out into areas of long-toned delicacy, collective wheeling and spiky, slap-tongued brittleness. Hushed baritone and clarinet fall away as Brotzmann's tarogato stretches out unaccompanied before masses of panned skronk bring the tune to a close. Sonore are highly nuanced and, most importantly, never "just" a saxophone trio.

Territory Band
Okka Disk

The Territory Band is Vandermark's large ensemble vehicle (outside of occasionally writing for the Tentet), and surely a group unifying what he's learned from a wide array of projects and influences. In name, it signifies the international nature of the contemporary improvisation climate, its "territory" covering Chicago as well as Norway, Sweden, Germany and England via the diverse locales of the thirteen musicians present. Collide features a long-form suite recorded live at the 2006 Chicago Jazz Fest, a fantasia for orchestra with tenor man Fred Anderson as a principal solo voice.

What struck this writer most is that certain textural combinations work in ways that I was genuinely surprised—Anderson's unfettered solo spot on the second movement gradually fleshed out with Lasse Marhaug's electronic whirrs and thuds, a meeting of improvisational apples and oranges if there ever was one. The ensemble enters with a modal Latin theme equivalent to something Andrew Hill might've put together, a pointillist counter to Fredrik Ljunkvist's ensuing bottom-hugging baritone work.

With passages of boisterous swing as well as extraordinary detail, Collide is certainly a whole that Vandermark and his cohorts can be extremely proud to be part of. As a composer and bandleader, it's probably his finest achievement to date. Taken together, these four discs cut a wide but representative swath of Ken Vandermark's abilities and his growth as an artist.

Tracks and Personnel

Beat Reader

Tracks: Friction; New Acrylic; Any Given Number; Signposts; Speedplay; Compass Shatters Magnet; Further from the Truth; Desireless.

Personnel: Ken Vandermark: baritone saxophone, Bb and bass clarinet; Dave Rempis: alto and tenor saxophones; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello; Kent Kessler: bass; Tim Daisy: drums.

The Point in a Line

Tracks: Music for Clocks; Overlay #2; Invisible Cities; Italics; Overlay #4; If It Goes; E.C.; Overlay #5; Cottonfield; Overlay #1; Open Not Closed; Eulogy for the Typewriter.

Personnel: Ken Vandermark: Bb clarinet and bass clarinet; Havard Wiik: piano; Ingebrigt Haker Flaten: bass

Only The Devil Has No Dreams

Tracks: Straight Into the Light; Open Shore; First Feedback; Two Birds in a Feather; Driftwood; Only The Devil Has No Dreams.

Personnel: Peter Brotzmann: alto and tenor saxophones, tarogato, Bb clarinet; Mats Gustafsson: baritone saxophone, fluteophone, and slide saxophone; Ken Vandermark: tenor and baritone saxophones; Bb clarinet.


Tracks: Part One; Part Two; Part Three; Part Four; Part Five.

Personnel: Ken Vandermark: tenor saxophone and Bb clarinet; Fred Anderson: tenor saxophone; Dave Rempis: alto and tenor saxophone; Fredrik Ljunkvist: tenor and baritone saxophone; Axel Dorner: trumpet; Per-Ake Holmlander: tuba; Jim Baker: piano; Lasse Marhaug: electronics; David Stackenas: guitar; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello; Kent Kessler: bass; Paul Lytton: drums; Paal Nilssen-Love: drums.


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