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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.

The saxophonists are more comfortable playing in a harmonically and rhythmically free, nearly non-idiomatic bag, something they do a lot more of on A Discontinuous Line. The album features what I assume to be the latest version of the Vandermark 5. Gone is Bishop, who was, aside from Kessler, the group’s least geeky and most convincing jazz-based improviser. In his place is cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, a noisy, decidedly non-jazz player whose exceptional free-improv skills bring a different flavor to the group. The three-part harmonies are gone. Lonberg-Holm mostly provides accompaniment and texture within the arranged portions, leaving Vandermark and Rempis to carry the melodies. Drummer Tim Daisy, who does a more-than-adequate job playing a straight-ahead beat, is nevertheless more interesting as a free player. This is the band doing what it does best. While I still have problems with Vandermark’s dweebish sense of swing and general lack of subtlety as a saxophonist, those are less problematic given the context. Like so much free jazz from Coltrane onwards, this is intentionally harsh music. Unfortunately, it hasn’t a hint of the blues sensibility that often warms up the best free jazz. I find a lot of this music cold and frankly unpleasant, but it is smart and intense-two qualities I hold dear.

Originally Published