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Ken Vandermark’s Concept-Jazz

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Hank Shteamer explores the various concepts behind Ken Vandermark's latest trio of recordings: Double or Nothing, Two Days in December, and Atlas.

Ken Vandermark’s Concept-Jazz

Consider the similarities between John Zorn, Dave Douglas, and Ken Vandermark. All three are relatively young composer/improvisers with strong backgrounds in jazz styles from bop to free, all work in many different idioms, and all lead several working bands. All three also regularly come under fire for their privileged status in the music industry. Many, including myself, have wondered why these three get to release so much well-distributed music in the U.S. while older musicians like Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, and Cecil Taylor toil away in the margins.

There is much more than race that separates Zorn, Douglas, and Vandermark from the aforementioned masters. All three are masters of the high-concept release. In other words, they nearly always combine their avant-garde sensibilities with old-fashioned marketability. (Of the aforementioned “elders,” only Braxton produces the occasional high-concept record – his Charlie Parker project, for instance – but none of them has ever found widespread U.S. distribution.)

Consider these projects: Zorn’s Morricone revue, The Big Gundown, and his schizo, postmodern rave-up Naked City; Douglas’s Booker Little, Wayne Shorter, and Mary Lou Williams tribute records and his accordion-driven Charms of the Night Sky group; and Vandermark’s Sun Ra/Funkadelic study Spaceways Inc. and his Joe Harriott Project. All of these releases would fit comfortably in a Barnes and Noble circular or an NPR plug because the intentions behind them are so explicitly defined. The fact that one could sum up the concept behind each in 25 words or less does not make them frivolous, though. All of these projects are formally innovative and musically brilliant.

The new crop of Vandermark releases illustrates this point perfectly. He may be prolific, but he never wastes his audience’s time. Though the history of jazz is fraught with political statements (indeed, they crop up frequently in Zorn’s work and in Douglas’s Witness project), Vandermark eschews such extra-musical angles, concentrating instead on perpetuating and furthering the jazz tradition. His musical tastes are diverse – he has recently dedicated pieces to Stan Getz, Henry Grimes, and Bobby Hutcherson – and so are the sounds of his various projects.

Double or Nothing (Okkadisk), pairing Vandermark’s DKV Trio with his frequent collaborators, the AALY trio, is a subtly conceptual outing. Though the record is largely improvised, it is not a purely spontaneous sextet session. Like Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, it is a study in symmetry. Most obviously, there is the classic channel division: AALY on the left, DKV on the right. When listening to these performances, one quickly understands that Vandermark has plotted them carefully. (I imagine him writing the names of the musicians on a napkin and drawing lines back and forth among them.) The first tune begins with a drum duet, the second with a bass duet, and in a wily move, the trios swap bassists during the improvised section of the third. These groupings demonstrate that Vandermark is very intent on providing his players with unique situations for improvising. The only problem is that these situations can sometimes lead to stunted blowing. On the other hand, when Vandermark unleashes all six men at once, the recording takes on a muddy quality. A tension arises in the middle of the group's take on Albert Ayler’s “Angels,” when Hamid Drake starts to play a funky, Latin-tinged rhythm. His DKV-mates, Vandermark (on bass clarinet) and Kent Kessler (on bass), obviously accustomed to Drake’s affinity for straight time playing, hop right on and effortlessly ride the groove. The AALY trio, on the other hand, lays out, perhaps a little wary of this rhythmic feel. This seemingly spontaneous moment of uncertainty shows that Vandermark could not prescribe every detail of the performances. He knows this and sounds energized whenever his world-class colleagues color outside of the compositional lines he has erected.

Like Double or Nothing, Two Days in December (Wobbly Rail) deals with symmetry. Here, Vandermark plays improvised duets with four Swedish musicians, all colleagues of Mats Gustaffson. Each duo gets about 30 minutes to present a series of short (most are five minutes or under) performances. The overarching impression I get from these discs is that free improvisation is not an easy endeavor. The duos have varying degrees of success sustaining interest without resorting to cliché. Vandermark’s pairings with pianist Sten Sandell and guitarist David Stackenas work the best in these terms. At first, Sandell sounds like Cecil Taylor with a lower terminal velocity. Over the course of nine tracks, though, he displays a unique gift for interacting with Vandermark’s reeds that even Taylor might do well to check out. On “Reeds and Hammers IV” and “V”, Sandell and Vandermark leapfrog nimbly as Taylor and Jimmy Lyons once did. The interaction between the two players is excellent here, with Sandell never obscuring his partner’s patented twisting lines. The pianist reveals a very different approach on some of the slower numbers. His doomy ploddings recall Mal Waldron in their frugality of notes.

Much as Sandell's playing is immediately reminiscent of Taylor, acoustic guitarist David Stackenas' prickly style instantly brings Derek Bailey to mind. This similarity is distracting at first, but Stackenas plays a remarkable rolling rhythm on “Skiktmoln” that makes me reconsider the comparison. This duo improvises more preciously than the others; Stackenas seems interested in wringing all sorts of unconventional sounds from his instrument and spurs Vandermark to similar, often very quiet, investigations.

The other two duets (with trap drummer Raymond Strid and the exciting percussionist Kjell Nordeson) often succumb to quiet-loud-quiet clichés, but provide an interesting foil for the guitar and piano outings. Overall, Two Days is an exhausting listen, admirable nevertheless for its conceptual single-mindedness. Incidentally, all this concentrated free blowing cannot help but reveal Vandermark’s limitations as an improviser (e.g. his over-use of short, “popped” notes and his often predictable choices of registers), but one gets the feeling that this is part of the point.

The concept of Territory Band, yet another Vandermark project, is simple: Vandermark has used some of the funds awarded to him by the MacArthur Foundation to assemble a big band comprised of his favorite colleagues from home and overseas. Musically, the project is incredibly ambitious and successful. On the newest Territory Band record, Atlas, Vandermark’s innovations in the melding of composition and improvisation rival those of Anthony Braxton, who has spent thirty years exploring this style. There is a great amount of tension in this music, as Vandermark’s compositions call for the players to segue from stormy free blowing to tight fanfares in a sort of “undercover” way; like in Braxton’s classic quartet and quintet music from the ‘70s, the unison sections on Atlas arise seemingly out of nowhere. (Tim Berne is the only other contemporary composer I know who can pull off this legerdemain.) And as in Braxton’s music, every player is here for a very specific reason. For example, I’m fascinated by Vandermark’s use of Kevin Drumm's electronics on the opening tune, “Add and Subtract [for Jean-Michel Basquiat].” When Drumm enters, creating whirring, glinting atmospheres behind Axel Doerner’s trumpet solo, one understands immediately that this is a new kind of big band.

I once read an interview with Jim O’Rourke where he described his records as “lab reports.” Like a traditional scientist, he considers each musical project like an experiment with specific dependent and independent variables. The music he releases, then, is simply a public statement of his findings. Science is a useful analogy for what Vandermark is doing. Any follower of his work knows that his liner notes always communicate the parameters and goals of a given project/experiment. This is great, as far as I’m concerned, because it allows the listener to judge a release against its creator’s intentions. Not all of Vandermark’s releases are spectacular (among these three, Atlas comes closest), but they all have a very clear artistic purpose. The same is true for the output of Zorn and Douglas. Sometimes these men work with stifling concepts, but they need to be recognized for what they are: some of their generation’s foremost musical researchers.

By Hank Shteamer

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