LA turned out in enthusiastic numbers to welcome the Vandermark 5 back after a two-year absence. Only at Rocco’s, where volunteers hurriedly set up chairs wherever they could to accommodate the overflow crowd. Performing weekly at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, the 5 were a testament to what a residency can do for a band. Not only in the hair raising hair pin turns the ensemble flawlessly executed, but also in their working band ethos-still wiping the sweat from an intense performance, Vandermark himself sold the band’s cd’s at intermission, easily mixing with fans.
Looking like Martin Milner’s little brother from the old Route 66 tv series, Vandermark is one of the youngest recipients of the MacArthur Foundation genius awards. A Boston native, Vandermark made his mark in Chicago, and remains a dominant jazz voice there. One of the most prolifically recorded jazz musicians of the last few years, his collaborations include the AALY Trio, DKV Trio, Peter Brotzmann Chicago Octet/Tentet, Joe McPhee, and the Sound in Action Trio. Likewise, his partner on sax Dave Rempis also contributes to several improvisational units in the Chicago area, including Triage with V5 drummer Tim Daisy. Trombonist Jeb Bishop joins Vandermark in the Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, and also collaborates with Joe McPhee, and the Chicago Defenders. Kessler joins Vandermark in many of the above projects, and recorded an album of solo bass called, “Bull Fiddle.” Tim Daisy also plays in Triage, and several windy city improv projects.
Performing in front of an oddly appropriate abstract urban stage setting left by a dramatic production sharing the space, the Vandermark 5 opened the “Outside Ticket,” with a wind trio. Joined by the rhythm section, Rempis took off on tenor, playing aggressively. Then Vandermark stepped in and blew the hinges off the doors. “Knock Yourself Out,” featured the evening’s first vivid examples of how well rehearsed and tightly arranged this ensemble is, moving from funk to free and back with startling accuracy. With Vandermark on baritone, Rempis soared wild and outside. The ballad “Gyllene,” had Rempis on alto, sweetening the V5 sound. Vandermark played mellow, introspective baritone in a trio setting, and Kessler bowed a beautiful solo. Bishop used the plunger mute for his duet with Daisy.
“That concludes the jazz portion of the show,” Vandermark joked by way of introducing the wide open “Intagliament.” Vandermark conducted with hand signals that may have directed the players to certain options within the piece. It began with trombone burbling, and soon Rempis and Kessler jousted with sound. Vandermark again soloed in a trio setting, this time getting all over the clarinet. “Telefon” kept to a runaway tempo with the rhythm section burning. With the two tenors powering the momentum, the band stopped and Vandermark and Kessler played an interlude, Kessler bowing. On a beat, the band suddenly charged ahead, Vandermark on fire.
“Strata,” veered somewhere between hard bop and free, while “Oslo Fugue,” unfolded slow and spacious. Rempis again played gently on alto, with Vandermark dramatic on clarinet. “Breaking Point” brought back the funk, with Vandermark fast in a hard-hitting trio arrangement. Vandermark blew overtones in support of Bishop’s solo. “6 of 1” played as a mini-suite, with Vandermark alternating between clarinet and baritone in different segments. Kessler soloed with the horns tonelessly blowing air. Vandermark played duet with Kessler using circular breathing. Rempis used his allotted time to blow out hard on tenor in trio. The ensemble once again moved seamlessly between free playing and strict arrangements with such cohesion that the elbow-to-knee crowd jumped to its feet in a standing ovation and demanded an encore.
Surprised by the response, the V5 jammed on Archie Shepp’s “Wherever June Bugs Go.” Rempis, Bishop, and Vandermark each gave it their all, and the band called it a night. Vandermark repeated his gratitude for the great turnout, remembering that two years ago they played for about twelve people. Next time, said Ken marveling at the audience response, they won’t wait so long before returning.