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School Days - In Our Times

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Artist: School Days

Album: In Our Times

Label: Okkadisk

Review date: Oct. 30, 2002

In Our Times

A musical dedication can mean a lot of different things. In the liner notes to the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra’s first release, Sunrise in the Tone World, William Parker discusses how the spirit rather than the actual sound of one’s inspiration might inform a dedication piece. On the other hand, in the case of someone like Steve Lacy, who has dedicated countless projects to Thelonious Monk, it’s obvious that his compositions have a direct sonic relationship to the work that gave rise to them.

Ken Vandermark, a tireless practitioner of the dedication piece, walks the line between these two approaches on In Our Times, the new disc by his School Days quintet. I don’t hear Miles Davis in Vandermark’s “Shift,” dedicated to the Dark Prince, but I definitely hear dedicatee Bobby Hutcherson on “What About” and throughout the record. Specifically, In Our Times refers, both in its instrumentation and in its sound, to classic hard bop-avant garde hybrid records featuring Hutcherson, such as Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond, recorded in 1963 for Blue Note. (Both records feature a sax and a trombone up front and vibes in place of piano.)

Curiously, the sonic parallels between School Days and those formidable Blue Note ensembles are most evident on one of only two non-Vandermark compositions here, trombonist Jeb Bishop’s “Octopus.” The tune’s fleet, jerky head, which would not sound out of place on One Step Beyond, moves quickly into a Bishop solo, with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love darting Tony Williams-style underneath. The performance retains a fairly comfortable mid-60s feel until Vandermark enters. During his solo, he rocks in a way that (no offense to the master) McLean never has. As Vandermark fans know, the burly Chicagoan loves to structure his improvisations around steaming riffs, and he carves off a choice one here, tormenting it from every angle.

These sorts of individual approaches are what make School Days a vital project rather than just an idiomatic exercise. One aspect of the group that sets it apart is its funkiness. On “Off the Top,” written for organist Larry Young (a Blue Note stable-mate of Hutcherson’s), the soloists lope over a tasty 9/4 vamp played by bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten. Nilssen-Love is the star of this particular performance, syncopating like Elvin Jones even as he sits in a deep pocket. His hypnotic solos here and on “What About” demonstrate an amazing sense of bounce and groove. Bishop, Håker-Flaten, and Kjell Nordeson (on vibes) are marvelous as well, reminding the listener what a talented bandleader Vandermark is. He is omnivorous yet picky in his playing partners; they don’t have to be well known, but they must bring serious chops and fully formed instrumental concepts to the table.

In Our Times undoubtedly recalls the masters who inspired it, but it takes their raw materials and ventures forward. Reckoning with tradition is the number one challenge for a contemporary jazzman, and Ken Vandermark has shown, here and elsewhere, that he can stand up to this challenge in any number of rewarding ways.

By Hank Shteamer

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