Ken Vandermark has always been a big-picture kind of guy. Whether digging deep into the dirt for the NRG Ensemble, delighting in tight modern jazz in his quintet, or exploring any number of angles in various other settings, the saxophonist has always kept his music focused. He's that rare kind of player who dares to do anything, but never sounds at all scattered. And as such he's a gift to modern jazz.
The collective trio Spaceways Inc. (featuring Vandermark) released its debut recording a couple years ago, and the group returns here for more pared-down playing on Version Soul. The trio dives into dub, funk, swing, and out jazz with a confident, direct attitude. The opener, "Back of a Cab," sets the stage for the rest of the record. Drummer Hamid Drake pairs with bassist Nate McBride for a deep, solid dub groove. Nothing too fancy or fast here: an ear for purity will detect sounds direct from the heart of Jamaica. Vandermark shows restraint, operating in a muted, understated melodic mode. "Size Large," the best tune on the record, grooves from the start with a delicious off-kilter funk. Listeners familiar with Vandermark's more adventurous work will delight in the booty-shaking simplicity of this original. Drake, of course, knows no boundaries, and he has an uncannny ability to take simple ideas and toss in just enough unpredictability to make them exciting. McBride picks up the electric bass and bounces back and forth from the underpinnings of the groove to some nice improvisations up top. (His electronic effects here are tough and tasteful.)
Version Soul heads out on a decidedly energetic tone. Just after the gossamer lines of "Force at a Distance" fade, the group goes into full overdrive with furious overblown tenor lines and explosively colorful rhythms. The closer serves as a reminder that these players have their roots in energy music, and it underscores the restraint and simplicity of so much of the rest of the record. At some point it's important to realize that you have to know the rules in order to break them. After an hour of relatively accessible music tucked into the fabric of funk, dub, softness, and swing, the return of the fire emphasizes this point. And it suggests that we might not have heard the last from this group. Let's hope so: these threee players have a powerfully intuitive relationship that transforms simplicity into ecstasy.