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The Vandermark 5 - Airports for Light

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Artist: The Vandermark 5

Album: Airports for Light

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Jul. 14, 2003

Excellent Fresh Start

Another year, another Vandermark Five record, and another set of influences to be explored by the indefatigable leader/reedist/composer. The now somewhat long-standing quintet has gone through some changes in recent years. First, saxophonist Dave Rempis replaced Mars Williams, then the band began to slowly shift away from the more rock-influenced sound that infused early gems like Target or Flag (a transformation abetted partly by trombonist Jeb Bishop’s decision to stop doubling on the guitar) into a more inside/outside jazz zone, and most recently Tim Daisy has assumed the drumming chair occupied by Tim Mulvenna for all previous V5 dates. Make no mistake, the band still mixes idioms like nobody’s business – not just between genres like funk and jazz, but within those genres as well – and Vandermark’s tunes (at least those written for this unit) are still defined by their restlessness, their tendency to touch on a baffling number of bases (at times this is a shortcoming, though it’s mostly a delight). And these guys work so hard at their music – each member is in about a million bands in Chicago, and the V5 are serious road dogs – that the shit always sounds amazingly tight.

I’ve dug their stuff for quite a while, but with the previous release Acoustic Machine I thought they might be getting a bit too comfortable in their niche. Still a good record, I found that the group was beginning to sound uncannily like a mid-60s Jackie McLean record (albeit one with references to non-idiomatic improvisation and popular musics thrown in). On Airports for Light, my doubts are pretty well assuaged. Sure they’re not going to sound brand new at this stage, but the compositions are brimming with vitality the recording is superb (this is the first Vandermark recording in quite a while that wasn’t waxed at Chicago’s Airwave Studios; this one was recorded by Shellac’s Bob Weston), and the band sounds like it got a fire lit under its ass (which may be due to the great Daisy, who rocks out in the collective Triage as well).

Things get off to an exhilarating start with "Crux Campo," a fine exploration of layered tempi with a killer trombone trio in the middle (Bishop’s really sounding good with the mute these days, and he’s taking his horn to new levels). In some sense they’re up to old tricks here – introducing new themes during improvisations, as with this tune’s horn canon atop a swinging funk – but they’re also stepping out into some new directions, i.e. when Vandermark hauls out his baritone (which he’s been playing live for a while). This combination of familiar and chancy is heard throughout these pieces. "Staircase" is a pensive semi-ballad combining a great Kessler/Daisy groove with some splendidly keening alto work from Rempis (in fact, Rempis often sounds the most invested on the "cooler" material, as on "Both Sides"). "7 Plus 5" features nice swan-diving clarinet work from the leader in some wide open space ("Initials" is another fine free tune here, designed to highlight particular configurations within the band). The V5 can also get heavy, of course. They bring the funk hard on "Other Cuts" (dedicated to the sublime Curtis Mayfield), and even harder on "Money Down," whose raunchy angular theme for grouped horns sounds like something you’ve been listening to for years. It’s a rich and varied album, one of the best this band has turned in for a spell.

By Jason Bivins

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