Steam/The Vandermark 5/Spaceways Incorporated

Steam

Real Time

The Vandermark 5

Burn the Incline

Spaceways Incorporated

Thirteen Cosmic Standards

Atavistic

Ken Vandermark is a hard man to keep up with. After his McArthur Grant, he seems to think that he’s God’s gift to jazz. It’s a damn good thing he is; otherwise he’d look right foolish.

Steam falls on just the right side of “the tradition” (of which John Corbett makes a big deal in the liner notes.) Steam exists in the “post-chord changes” field of jazz, which opens them up to bona fide good tunes like “Telleferrom,” but doesn’t constrain them to tired, old patterns. Vandermark is in familiar territory here, playing with bandmates in the Vandermark 5, Tim Mulvenna (drums) and Kent Kessler (bass). Pianist Jim Baker rounds out the quartet. It’s nice to see Vandermark react to a pianist, as it gives him less of a chance to flutter and flail unreservedly, as he’s prone to. The piano brings out a patient melodicism in the band and invites new opportunities for interesting conversations. That’s not to say that they don’t let loose occasionally. “Explosive Motor” lives up to its title, with some freewheeling piano and insistent bass. “Real Time” is a solid release by Vandermark, possibly not a revelatory as some of his other work, but showing a pleasant side of the man.

The Vandermark 5 is Ken Vandermark’s compositional playground. He bends and pulls the ensemble in a number of ways, none of which they have any problem dealing with at all. The music is always inventive and creative, combining fluid composition and powerful, dynamic improvisation. The lineup is Jeb Bishop (trombone, guitar), Kent Kessler, Tim Mulvenna, Dave Rempis (alto & tenor sax) and Vandermark (tenor sax, B-flat and bass clarinets.) The 5 go in distinctly less noisy territory than on their prior Simpatico, focusing on the tunes instead of the skronk. “Late Night Wait Around (for Ab Baars)” is a haunting, delicate song, gentle in its ebb and flow. It’ll drop soften the heart of even the most staid academic. “Accident Happening” slams with the force of a two-car fender bender, devastating on impact, but much easier to pallet than a giant mash-up. The first 1000 copies of this CD come with a bonus disc that has covers of tunes by Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, Eric Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor. I’ve seen consistency, and its name is the Vandermark 5.

Spaceways Incorporated sees Vandermark further exploring his muse, and paying tribute to those whose music influenced his. On Thirteen Cosmic Standards, the trio of Vandermark, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Hamid Drake cover the songs of Sun Ra and Funkadelic. Reference the July ’00 issue of The Wire if you’d like to see Sun Ra placed in the continuum of contemporary thought, but what I know is that Sun Ra brought some crazy funk with him from Saturn. The CD starts surprisingly quiet with “Tapestry for an Asteroid.” We’re given no quarter from then on. The trio let loose some deep, dark, and dirty funk, swimming in sax squeal, upright and electric bass and drumming frenzy. While Hamid Drake swings mighty and hard, it’s a bit disappointing to see so little free playing on his part, despite the fact that their songs are referred to as standards. He’s an extraordinarily sensitive player, and it would have been nice to see more improv fireworks on his part. That’s only a slight qualm, and it doesn’t distract from the strength of these songs.

These three new offerings from the multifaceted man from Chicago are as satisfying as you’d expect. Ken Vandermark has set a consistently high standard for himself, and it’s well rewarding to hear him try to reach it.

Atavistic, P.O. Box 578266, Chicago, IL 60657; http://www.atavistic.com

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