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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.

Expansion Slang (1998) introduces a different facet of Vandermark’s writing. Taking Don Cherry’s Complete Communion as his model, he created frameworks for three improvised suites, each comprising a number of themes that the musicians (Vandermark, bassist Nate McBride, drummer Curt Newton) were free to cue in at any time and in any order. The fluent stream of group interplay, from concentrated ferocity (“Optica Torre”) to more tender embroilments (“Alumni Forms”), suggests the strategy was successful, though the 20-minute “In Sequence” fails to sustain its brilliant opening and tails away rather in a prolonged stop-start farewell.

McBride is reunited with Vandermark in Spaceways Incorporated, a trio completed by percussionist Hamid Drake (Vandermark’s partner in yet another of his regular groups, the DKV Trio). Thirteen Cosmic Standards (2000) alternates sinuous tunes by Sun Ra with the brash, galvanizing funk of George Clinton. Musically, it’s a chalk-and-cheese pairing, but after initial misgivings I’ve been won over by the trio’s agile playing and deft arrangements, particularly on Ra classics like “El Is a Sound of Joy” and the ever-seductive “We Travel the Spaceways,” where Vandermark’s clarinets are at their most pithily sensuous.

At the Empty Bottle (1997) is the one disc here I dislike. It comprises the somewhat brief second set of a Witches & Devils concert in Chicago, in which three of Albert Ayler’s beautiful, anthemic tunes-“Truth Is Marching In,” “Angels” and “Bells”-are transformed into a maelstrom of dour intensity. Greg Tate recently suggested that free jazz’s embrace by what he called “the post-rock audience” had helped to secure its survival. Well, yes, but whatever survives will have been changed by that embrace. I can’t hear many traces of Albert Ayler in the Witches & Devils sound-brew: the majesty, subtlety, distilled lyricism and spiritual power of his original recordings are nowhere apparent.

People who invoke Ayler’s name seem to focus on a single aspect of his language-intensity-and magnify that until it becomes the whole deal. Yet even Ayler’s screaming took place in a complex cultural context (involving New Orleans march music, the black church, a very personal visionary metaphysics, etc.) that gave it meaning. To replicate that music out of context is to unleash a sound that’s been gutted of its substance, its soul. The result is a kind of formalism, a shrieking-for-its-own-sake, that may suit the post-rock crowd but has very little to do with Albert Ayler.