At a recent performance by Ken Vandermark's Free Music Ensemble, one of my favorite parts came when Vandermark picked up the B-flat clarinet. Not only did it reveal a different voice for a player who already has distinct personalities on several horns, but his brawny tone and attack had an authority and weight not often heard on the instrument.
Vandermark left the tenor and baritone saxes at home for Furnace, sticking exclusively to clarinet and bass clarinet. Free Fall-the trio of Vandermark, pianist Havard Wiik and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten-takes its name from an album by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, which featured the same instrumentation. Vandermark explains in the liner notes that he and his cohorts aren't attempting to be a Giuffre tribute band so much as take inspiration from their ideas, such as shifting roles of melodic responsibility.
The nine compositions are all original works; Wiik penned three, Flaten wrote one and Vandermark contributed the rest. Like the tracks on last year's Vandermark 5 disc Airports for Light, all of his songs have individual dedications, though they don't always dictate the feel of the composition. "Into the Air," dedicated to Eric Dolphy, doesn't have any reeds for the first four minutes. When the clarinet finally appears, its long drawn-out notes serve more as the coating on the bass and piano's slow probing. The title track, for poet Frank O'Hara, includes some vicious plucking from Flaten and an equally fiery solo from Wiik.
Along with the players' remarkable ability to drive the music even in the gentlest moments, where direction seems ambiguous, Furnace should be discovered for the sound of the recording, which has the warmth of a chamber group coupled with the strength of adventurous improvisation.