February 10, 2007
It's an unorthodox club where jazz is rarelyif everheard. And the show was promoted by a local team who are more in touch with the punk/indie scene. But sometimes things come together in the most unexpected ways. The Vandermark 5's first Ottawa appearance at Zaphod Bebblebroxa mainly standing room-only club in the heart of the city's nightclub districtturned out to be not just a success in itself but one that may well encourage local promoters to take more risks in the future.
Baritone saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark brought the current version of V5, responsible for 2006's outstanding Atavistic release A Discontinuous Line, for two exciting sets that balanced material from A Discontinuous Line with new compositions recorded towards the end of 2006 that will be released later this year. An all-ages crowd sat down on the floor in front of the stage, clearly captivated by the group's heady mix of form and freedom.
If anything, the reinvention of V5 as a more instrumentally-balanced quintet featuring two horns, two strings and one percussionist, has become even more synergistic since the release of A Discontinuous Line. Vandermark's integration of complex writing with free-flowing improvisation continues, but with textural possibilities not possible in the earlier version of the band with trombonist Jeb Bishop. Cellist Fred Lonberg- Holm has, in fact, turned out to be the wildcard of the group, feeding his instrument through all sorts of processing devices to create sounds rarely heard from this normally rich and full-bodied instrument. At times, Lonberg-Holm turned his cello into a harsh and aggressive instrumentmore Metallica than Casals.
That's not to suggest that Lonberg-Holm and V5 aren't capable of beautythe opening theme of "Friction made it clear that, as much as this group comes from a jazz tradition (albeit, with an undeniably forward- looking approach), it's also conversant with contemporary chamber music. The way that the quintet would, at times, break down into various permutations and combinations of subsets allowed for all manner of textures to come to the forefront. The lyrical theme of "Friction gave way to a more frenetic improv section that dissolved into a two-way conversation between drummer Tim Daisy and Vandermark on bass clarinet. As clearly connected as they (and every member) were, with no stick-out leader and no clear follower, even the most extreme spontaneity remained tightly focused and filled with purposeful intention.
L:R Dave Rempis, Kent Kessler, Fred Lonberg- Holm
The title of V5's 12-CD live box Alchemia (Not Two, 2005) is the perfect way to describe the transmutation of the individual band members' characteristics into something where the whole is invariably greater than the sum of its parts. Individual strengths abound: saxophonist Dave Rempis is capable of winding post-bop lines and skronking matched only by Vandermark himself (especially on baritone sax); Lonberg-Holm is likely to saw away viciously and with seeming abandon on his cello but can also be found doubling constructed pizzicato lines with bassist Kent Kessler; Kessler himself may seem to be the most restrained player of the groupbut not only is he an essential anchor, he's an equal improvising and contrapuntal partner.
Hearing the band on disc is one thing; seeing them live is another. If one were forced to pick a label, jazz would have to be it. But a V5 show is just as much about performing music with, at different times, a chamber-like elegance, a rock edge and even a hint of funk. But the apparent musical pastiche is all integrated into something that can only be described as V5. The group shifts between free passages and composed sections that some moments appear to come out of nowhere and at others are clearly cued. Still, even when the group dissolves into what seems like pure anarchy, close attention will often reveal an underlying structure.
Next to Lonberg-Holm, drummer Tim Daisy is V5's most recent recruit, but you'd never know it. A flexible drummer as comfortable creating a Tony Oxley-like jumble of clattering cacophony as he is a firm backbeat, a powerful swing (as modernistic as V5 is, it by no means ignores its roots) and light propulsion on a ride cymbal, his solos are the definition of spontaneous construction.
While V5 finished its second set at 11:00 PM on the buttonnecessary because Zaphod's had to be turned over to its late-night DJ/dance crowdboth the audience and the club realized that they couldn't let them go without at least one encore. Vandermark chose a brief look at "Aperture, from A Discontinuous Line, but before the group started, he thanked the audience for participating in what was clearly a risky venture for the promoters, club, audience and band.
Ottawa is typically considered to be a conservative place when it comes to jazz, but Vandermark 5's potent performance on a cold night in February proved that there's an audience for this kind of music here. Hopefully the success of the show will make it clear that, as long as the word gets out, the kind of intrepid, expansive and forward-reaching music played by bands like Vandermark 5 has a place in the Ottawa music scene.