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The Vandermark 5: Free Jazz Classics, Vols. 3 & 4

I might not always care for Ken Vandermark’s aesthetic, but there’s no question that he works imaginatively within it. On Free Jazz Classics Vols. 3 and 4, the saxophonist/clarinetist arranges tunes by Sonny Rollins and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. (Neither was ever precisely a free-jazz musician, yet Vandermark makes reasonable justifications for his choices in the liner notes.) Volume 3 is subtitled Six for Rollins; Volume 4, Free Kings. As usual, I find myself respecting his ability while having major problems with the music.

A major problem I have with Vandermark has to do with his stilted phrasing and sense of rhythm, particularly on quick tempos. That’s a big issue when dealing with material like this. Stiffness runs through this music like a splint. Bassist Kent Kessler and trombonist Jeb Bishop are exceptions; they swing with flexibility and ingenuity. In contrast, Vandermark’s and fellow saxophonist Dave Rempis’ ungainly, on-the-beat playing sounds overly academic. That’s not to say they aren’t compelling players. For instance, Vandermark’s bari work on Rollins’ “John S.” has a somewhat hokey feel, yet it’s enormously creative in its own way. Too bad for him, the following solos by Kessler and Bishop are so loose-hinged as to make Vandermark sound like a sax-playing Myron Floren. Rempis’ playing can have a similar corncob-up-the-wazoo feel, although he’s somewhat more fluid on quick tempos. Vandermark, on the contrary, is far better on relaxed tempos; his rhythms looser and more varied, his inflections more sophisticated and ultimately more expressive. The arrangements are nicely written, although many feature Rempis’ naive, awkwardly inflected alto on top, which is not a good thing. To their credit, Rempis and Vandermark do manage to generate some excitement. I hear things can get pretty heated at Star Trek conventions, too.

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