Ken Vandermark's ongoing Territory Band makes its third appearance on Map Theory
, a sprawling and challenging album of six tunes. The large group format (twelve musicians strong) and the crew's like-minded atmosphere make for ample freedoms, producing refreshing music most of the time, with occasional lapses into noise and chaos.
Each of the six originals by Vandermark have dedications to other artists, past and present, as well as one selection, "Framework," for Vandermark's brother Rob, a bicycle manufacturer. The opening tune, "A Certain Light," honors the memory of German bassist Peter Kowald, who passed away unexpectedly in 2002. Sounding like a ragged marching band, the group enters on a pounding, steady beat, then stopping suddenly to improvise over sixteen minutes. Like the rest of the album, there are moments here when the group's liberties astonish and surprise the imagination, with melodies and rhythms in a wild, ever-evolving dialogue.
Movements come and go, moods rest, dissolve, reappear; this is a constant churn of ideas. In this mad dash of thoughts, the group stumbles at times, going too far out, unable to support any true sense of music. This happens to varying degrees on all the songs, except for the album's Gil Evans' dedication, "Towards Abstraction." Here, as with Vandermark's other recent release, Elements of Style... Exercises in Surprise, the music is wound tighter, adhering to recognized roles of melody and rhythm, allowing the strength of his exceptional compositions to shine. These instances make the recipient of the 1999 MacArthur "genius" grant accessible and engaging, unlike other instances, as on "Slides" and "Image as Text," where the disjointed, abstract nature of the improvisations are more self-indulgent than welcoming.
The whole album goes back and forth within these parameters. If you can stomach the fluctuations, Map Theory may well be worth your time.