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Ken Vandermark’s Sound In Action Trio: Design in Time

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Except in Chicago, where a tiresome chauvinism permeates the flacking of its new jazz and improvised music scene, the awarding of a MacArthur fellowship to Ken Vandermark in 1999 was met with utter surprise, if not jibes about an inside job at the Chicago-based foundation. Certainly, Vandermark has done the hard work necessary to build a thriving scene in Chicago, and juggle a gaggle of bands and projects to create high international name recognition for himself and his cohorts. Yet, next to previous MacArthur fellows like Max Roach and Cecil Taylor, Vandermark is a youngblood, an impression reinforced by his flat-topped image of ’90s cool and a discography roughly split between obviously durable work and recordings of mere passing interest.

Design in Time, however, has the gravity Vandermark now needs to rebuff the skeptics. Much of the initial buzz surrounding this album centers on Robert Barry, drummer for the Sun Ra Arkestra in the ’50s, whose presence extends the laudable thread in Vandermark’s activities of working with elders of the music like Fred Anderson and Joe McPhee. Yet, the real story is Vandermark. If playing solo is, as often stated, like working a high-wire without a net, venturing out with arrangements for a single horn and two drummers adds a bed of spikes to the simile. (The other percussionist is frequent Vandermark collaborator Tim Mulvenna, who has the cross-rhythm tag-team thing with Barry down cold.) To compound the danger, Vandermark calls a taxing lot of chestnuts and minor classics-three by Ornette Coleman, and one each by Thelonious Monk, Ra, Albert Ayler, and Don Cherry-in addition to four engaging compositions of his own.

Vandermark’s command of the album’s titular proposition elevates the program far above a blowing session or an off-center spin on repertory. It is interesting and encouraging how this manifests on tenor outings like Coleman’s “Law Years” and Vandermark’s “One More Once” as a Sonny Rollins-like ease in moving from one idea to the next. Vandermark’s growing sophistication as a clarinetist, evidenced by the airy, dancing quality at the top of Cherry’s “The Thing” and the nonchalance of “Peace,” provides a strong, contrasting palette to the program. Subsequently, ecstatic forays like Ayler’s “Angels” are more cogent than on Vandermark-led or co-led dates where full-bore intensity constitutes the bulk of the program.

Still, the more deliberate performances-particularly originals like the lulled, lyrical “Well Suited” and the sprightly shuffling “Cut to Fit”-argue best that Vandermark’s award was a prescient act instead of a case of trend spotting, or something more jaundiced.