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Paal Nilssen-Love/Ken Vandermark: Dual Pleasure

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Reedist Ken Vandermark has a big bull’s eye on his back, but I don’t want to be perceived as taking shots. He’s too talented, especially as a composer, to just receive fan mail. But as is the case with many excellent free players, his imagination and technique have significant holes. Vandermark plays with a lot of guts, screams and split tones, but passion ain’t enough. His overreliance on a pentatonic scale (one that most closely resembles the blues scale) and his overall lack of harmonic ingenuity diminish the effect of his improvisations. Take Dual Pleasure’s first cut, “Flashpoint”-a balls-to-the-wall free blow, with Vandermark on bari sax cutting and slashing over Paal Nilssen-Love’s drum-set-falling-down-a-flight-of-stairs percussion. Vandermark latches onto a pentatonic motive from “A Love Supreme” a couple of minutes into the performance. He repeats it over and over, establishing it in our ears, serendipitously, as the theme-less track’s central organizing element. It could have been an effective tactic, but Vandermark does little with it except regurgitating it with slight rhythmic variation. He could have mixed it up harmonically-elaborating upon it in a step-wise, circle-of-fifths or chromatic sequence. Instead, he stays smack dab in the middle of the prevailing pentatonic scale. It’s not an isolated event, either. He takes the same approach elsewhere, as on the first album’s “Anno 1240,” “Jean S.” and “Dual Fiction,” and the second album’s “Train Hits the Station” and the perhaps ironically titled “Never Leave Well Enough Alone.”

Interestingly, on clarinet, Vandermark avoids many of the problems plaguing his bari and tenor work, perhaps because the instrument’s physical properties actually make top-to-bottom use of a single pentatonic scale technically difficult. Cuts like “Non Chilled” on the second album and “Closed Doors, Open Windows” have an attractive, Webern-like quality. It would behoove Vandermark to translate that sound to his saxes.

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