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Spaceways Incorporated: Thirteen Cosmic Standards by Sun Ra and Funkadelic

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Ken Vandermark is the common denominator on these five CDs. Chicago’s ubiquitous reedsman leads or co-leads four of these groups, and also plays with Witches & Devils, an Albert Ayler tribute band put together by saxophonist Mars Williams. Vandermark is notorious for belonging to a dozen or more groups at any one time, so these CDs, recorded between 1996 and 2000, offer only a partial account of his recent activities and should not be taken as signalling anything as definitive as a direction. Still, there is the hint of an anomaly. Despite his reputation as a scorched-earth improviser in the Brotzmann mold, it’s Vandermark’s writing that stands out on most of these discs, suggesting he could become a jazz composer of real distinction. Burn the Incline (1999) and the reissued Real Time (1996) provide the strongest evidence for this claim.

Real Time features a standard jazz quartet line-up-reeds (Vandermark), piano (Jim Baker), bass (Kent Kessler) and drums (Tim Mulvenna)-and pays homage to the bebop era with exuberant dedications to Dexter Gordon, Booker Ervin and Herbie Nichols, the latter a wild romp for Vandermark’s volatile bass clarinet. The disc also includes two haunting slow pieces, “Tableau Shot” and the noirish “A Memory of No Thoughts.” Vandermark touches similar bases on Burn the Incline, and the reflective modes explored in “Late Night Wait Around” and “The Trouble Is” again have a trancelike beauty. But the Vandermark 5’s broader instrumental palette-Baker’s piano replaced by Dave Rempis’ saxophones and Jeb Bishop’s trombone and guitar-also allows him to delve further into rock- and funk-based territories, as on “Distance,” “Roulette” and the frenetic “Ground.” The Vandermark 5 is one of Vandermark’s more regular groups (Burn the Incline is their fourth CD), and I can see why he might prefer these extra options, but I hope he hasn’t abandoned the closer dalliance with jazz tradition promised by Steam.

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