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December 2004

The Vandermark 5
Elements of Style... Excersises in Surprise
Atavistic Records
Zu/Spaceways Inc.
Radiale
Atavistic Records
Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet
Signs
Okkadisc
Atomic/School Days
Nuclear Assembly Hall
Okkadisc

Reedist Ken Vandermark is officially the leader on only one of these four albums, but his presence is strongly felt on all.

Elements of Style is unambiguously the reedist's. The Vandermark Five includes mainstays bassist Kent Kessler and trombonist Jeb Bishop as well as drummer Tim Daisy and saxophonist Dave Rempis. Daisy is solid. Rempis is impassioned but unformed, a less graceful version of Vandermark, who, for all his virtues, is not a notably graceful player. Vandermark's tunes are nicely crafted. Horn-wise, he's his usual good, hard-working self-an imaginative improviser with fast fingers who probably doesn't pay enough attention to the subtler aspects of playing his horns. He's a blunt saxophonist who seems to soften up only when the tempo is down, as on the attractive ballad "Strata." There's no reason such sensitivity can't be used in other, rowdier contexts, especially in the recording studio where volume isn't as much of a concern.

Radiale combines two different bands-Zu and Spaceways Inc. Vandermark guests on the Zu portion, and the members of Zu join Spaceways Inc. for the latter's tracks. Zu seems inspired by Last Exit, the '80s free jazz/heavy metal cooperative that included saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, bassist Bill Laswell, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and guitarist Sonny Sharrock; except Zu doesn't use guitar-bassist Massimo Pupillo covers that ground. Of the two groups, Spaceways is a little less rambunctious. Cuts like the rock-ish "Trash A-Go-Go" are more conventionally structured and in-the-pocket than Zu's rhythmically freewheeling tunes. Vandermark dips into his rock 'n' roll tenor bag and comes up big. His borderline goofy, stiff-necked rhythmic sense (he just don't swing that hard, but that's who he is, so it's OK) lends itself to the neo-'70s funk/rock vibe. The entire record exudes a beer-ish joy that's hard to resist.

Signs, by the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet features Vandermark and his frequent partners Bishop, Kessler and drummers Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake. Four squalling saxophonists, including Mats Gustafsson and Mars Williams, dominate the hypertensive ensemble, and saxophonist Joe McPhee busts out the brass, heroically rising above the screeching with some graceful trumpet lines. Brotzmann stands out most obviously on "Six Gun Territory," where his vocalic tarogato playing is effectively abstracted from the collective miasma. There's a lot of very good improvising going on. Unfortunately, it's all being done at the same time, too much of the time. Space ain't just a place, y'all.

Vandermark's benign tactlessness pays dividends when placed in a slicker environment, as on Nuclear Assembly Hall. Recorded in Norway, the octet includes Vandermark, Bishop and a group of Norwegian musicians with whom I am unfamiliar. The Europeans seem to come partly out of a '60s Miles thing, with bits of various free and postbop bags thrown in for good measure. The group conception is much cleaner than the usual Vandermark/Chicago fare, which actually works to the visitors' advantage. Vandermark's outter-than-thou emotionalism dirties up the Norwegian's clean white sheets; the contrast between the hot-and-smooth Euros and the hot-and-scruffy Americans makes for some effective music. Special notice, however, should be made of the very fine trumpeter Magnus Broo, who is not at all smooth-his inventive messiness would sound at home anywhere. Nuclear Assembly Hall is hardly typical of the stuff Vandermark does back home, but that's the point, really. His breadth of interests and the enthusiasm with which he addresses each facet of his creativity make him interesting.

Originally published in December 2004
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