Thursday, February 28, 2008

Chicago Bound

Vandermark 5 - Beat Reader (Atavistic, 2008)

The Chicago jazz scene is frighteningly alive right now. From the inter-connected post-rock artists veering into more improvised territory on the Thrill Jockey roster (centred around trumpeter/composer Rob Mazurek and guitarist Jeff Parker) to the fiery explosion of expression at the heart of Ken Vandermark’s constantly evolving quintet, there’s a plethora of original and intelligent ideas on display.

For ‘Beat Reader’, Vandermark has assembled his strongest and least conventional line-up so far. With no piano or guitar, the harmonic accompaniment is provided solely by Fred Lonberg-Holm’s attacking ‘cello. With more electronic manipulation here than on his excellent trio recordings in his own name, Lonberg-Holm crafts fascinating textures and patterns, often sounding savage and unhinged. With Vandermark himself mostly favouring baritone saxophone or a range of clarinets, there’s an interesting tonal contrast between his playing and the alto or tenor of Dave Rempis.

Vandermark proves himself a master of constructing a careful balance between composed and improvised elements. Sometimes the music is as free and furious as an Ornette Coleman session, but it is definitely not free jazz in a technical sense. Much of it swings or grooves with the swagger and passion of a 1960s ensemble, and there’s as strong a connection with blues and roots as with European-influenced abstraction. For example, the slow walk that dominates the first half of ‘Further From The Truth’ is remarkably slinky, whilst the looser second half is eerie and contemplative.

All the pieces all seem to be dedicated to particular composers, and if there’s an abiding theme to this excellent record, it’s the way in which techniques of composition and arrangement can be used as effective springboards to free flights of fierce improvisation. Fascinatingly, the swirling, hypnotic ‘Friction’ is dedicated to Hungarian innovator Gyorgy Ligeti. Given Ligeti’s preference for sheets of sound, rhythmic complexity and dissonance over conventional melody and harmony, it’s surprising how accessible the central theme of ‘Friction’ is. Similarly, the slow tempo of ‘Any Given Number’ allows notes to linger in the mind, and also provides ample space and freedom.

The group’s arrangements, whether planned or spontaneous, are generally inspired. Lonberg-Holm is frequently left to his own devices, and the range of sound he can draw from his instrument immediately becomes violently clear, much of it perhaps drawn more from the techniques of contemporary classical music or folk music than the jazz tradition. Better still are the displaced stabs that accompany Vandermark’s wild and fast-flowing solo on the extraordinary ‘Signposts’. It’s a particularly harmonious juxtaposition of individual expression with collective alchemy. There’s also a tendency to veer unpredictably from passages of free experimentation, with a mischievous manipulation of time and space, to passages which swing simply but thrillingly. ‘Speedplay’, particularly, seems to cover all bases with surprising success, a powerful testament to the abilities of drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Kent Kessler.

After an unfathomably slow start to 2008, there suddenly seems to be so much to write about, particularly from artists really pushing at the boundaries of expression and classification. There’s Toumani Diabate’s Mande Variations, which effortlessly combines breathtaking instrumental virtuosity with an open, spacious beauty; some serene meditations from Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski’s Trio; the compelling integration of percussionist Marilyn Mazur and saxophonist Jan Garbarek; the melding of stark minimalism and righteous grooving from Nik Bartsch’s Ronin and a good deal more besides.

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