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Vandermark 5 at the Green Mill

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Vandermark 5
Green Mill, Chicago
October 1, 2005
From the tiny, instrument- and musician-cluttered stage of Chicago's Green Mill, Ken Vandermark peered bemusedly out at the full house of avid, attentive, and, yes, fashionable attendees.
"You are aware that we are the Vandermark 5, aren't you? he asked, and his confusion wasn't completely unreasonable. The Green Mill is far from a yuppie joint, but it does attract a chic, high-heeled patron or two—quite a contrast from the V5's usual venue the Empty Bottle. No one was confused, however, about who was performing that night—but the size of the crowd, their enthusiasm, and their rapt silence were striking.
It's really about time that people packed a house to hear the Vandermark 5. On this second night of a two-day run at the Green Mill celebrating the release of the band's fantastic new 2-disc album The Color of Memory, one got the palpable impression that this band has, as they say, arrived. Good for them, but this audience wasn't there to reward the group; they were there to hear music, and reeds player Vandermark, saxophonist Dave Rempis, bassist Kent Kessler, drummer Tim Daisy and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm delivered, perhaps beyond anyone's expectations.

This was more than a record release gig, because the music on The Color of Memory was the last album by the incarnation of the band that included trombonist Jeb Bishop, whose work was a distinctive part of the V5 sound. One had to wonder just how much his replacement, cellist Lonberg-Holm, was going to change the group dynamic and sound—for that matter, would a string musician in place of a brass player even work?

It worked. What was remarkable was how well—one suspects that only Vandermark, a notorious perfectionist, wasn't utterly elated by these sets. If anything, birthday boy Lonberg-Holm gave the band more to work with, as evidenced by his ability to double Bishop's trombone parts in the band's impeccably tight, composed ensemble accents (as on the r&b-inflected swing of "Suitcase ), his pairing with Kessler to create stunning dual-bass line effects (as on, for example, the new piece "Aperture ), and his intensely coiled, even psychedelic solo work, his foot tapping at his effects pedals as he sawed at his black carbon-fiber cello (as on a glorious version of "Camera ).

The rest of the group was equally remarkable. Dave Rempis' solo statements were of a characteristically high level, whether he was pouring out driving yet warm tenor lines on "Pieces of the Past or fusing avant-garde free licks and bluesy emotion on alto on "Dernier Cri. He also acted as an able second-in-command, cueing the group's trademark so-tight ensemble accent parts on "That Was Now with hand signals while the leader was otherwise indisposed playing an octave-spanning, face-reddening baritone sax solo that seemed to incorporate a vast history of horn playing. Bassist Kessler meanwhile was a constant fulcrum about which the band revolved; his playing on "Vehicle demonstrated just how intense a walking bass can be. Drummer Daisy seemed similarly irreplaceable—his bit-of-this, some-of-that free drum solo on "Dernier Cri was deeply musical and as fascinating as his mallet work under the song's long unison, silence-surrounded clarinet/tenor/cello moans (the audience, to its credit, remaining as still as the band during these long silences).

Perhaps some people still regard Vandermark as some sort of indisciplined, free-jazz honker acting entirely on whim, without a care for structure or form. But despite the brilliance of the musicians, the strongest part of the Vandermark 5—a group undeniably dedicated to improvisation and free music—is Vandermark's composing skills. The improvisatory parts work so well because of the brilliance of Vandermark's themes (as on the new pieces "Convertible and "Aperture ) and because of those stunning composed ensemble parts that so bracingly accent the soloists. The free elements of his music succeed because of the preparation and rigor that support them—just witness the group huddling together over their charts between the sets at any Vandermark gig. In terms of sublime composed music, you can't beat the breathing, hocketing composed section of "Dernier Cri, where all the musicians in the group save Daisy played one note of a long, flowing musical line. And whether it's composed or improvised, no one has more satisfying counterpart in his music than Vandermark; the simultaneous, contrapuntal Vandermark baritone and Rempis tenor on "Vehicle were, to this listener, as good as live musical performance can be.

The crowd seemed to agree vehemently, greeting every piece with rapturous applause. As did I. And while I admit unashamedly that I am a Chicagoan, and therefore open to accusations of home-town subjectivity, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is the best American jazz band working today—by a considerable long shot.

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