The Gold Sparkle Band
Fugues And Flowers
Jazz is comprised of a quaint collection of cliches, ceaselessly repeating, but managing millions of subtle, imperceptible mutations throughout its relatively short history. A reliance on semi-dissonant intervallic relationships, horn/bass/drum instrumental choices, and improvisation seem to be the most unifying factors. In addition, there are potentially interesting cases involving ethnicity. The composer/pianist/guru Cecil Taylor feels fairly strongly that jazz is a distinctly African-American tradition, while Spaghetti Western star and jazz biopic director Clint Eastwood would probably describe it as “America’s Classical Music.” I’m not going to make a judgment now. I’m already off-topic enough.
So. The Point. Two new releases, the Gold Sparkle Band album on the all-around enjoyable and eclectic Squealer record label, and a recording by certifiable genius Ken Vandermark and his Spaceways Inc. project, entitled, Version Soul, are now readily available in your local mall chain record stores.
Endowed with a cleverly nostalgic and classy title, Fugues And Flowers shows the nearly eight-year old collaboration between Charles Waters, Roger Ruzow, Andrew Barker, and Adam Roberts in a tender light. Comprised of live recordings culled from a tour to support the preceding Gold Sparkle Band release, Nu Soul Zodiac, Fugues is a achingly spirited release.
As any music reviewer or bespectacled, vinyl-fetishist, author of Saxophones and Beards: An In-Depth History of Avant-Garde Jazz Music, kind-of fan will tell you, this is, strangely enough, free jazz music with an acute sense of historical reference. For instance, the opening track, “Zodiac Attack,” begins with a drum beat easily echoing Billy Higgins’ playing on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, if that helps to make the picture a bit clearer. The Gold Sparkle Band seems to reference the work of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy almost religiously, shirking the weight of “outness” embraced by Coleman only a few years after his most tuneful phase and heralded by Germans, Brits, and Sun Ra.
Somehow, in the shuffle of time, free jazz came to denote something very, very chaotic, and those masses of atonal, arrhythmic kineticism started to obscure those sweet, skewed harmonies and impulsive(!) melodies that I fell in love with when I just started to discover free jazz. All of the indulgence of The Gold Sparkle Band’s nostalgia is tempered by the fact that they are keeping an important folk tradition alive. When Coleman and Dolphy started to usher in those ideas of freedom, it was a fresh tradition, there is no delusion about “furthering jazz” on Fugues And Flowers. The amount of energy, subtlety, and — amazingly enough — accessibility certainly compensate for any sense of retread.
The same could be said, conveniently enough, regarding the new Spaceways Inc. album, as well. Spaceways Inc. is a trio consisting of Hamid Drake, who’s drumming probably has more oomph-per-ounce than a beached whale on a trampoline, acoustic and electric bassist Nate McBride, and Chicago’s most famous scowl, Ken Vandermark.
Spaceways Inc. was established roughly around the same time that Vandermark was awarded his much-publicized MacArthur Grant, which contrary to Ink 19 reviewer (author of the excellent review regarding the first Spaceways Inc. album, Thirteen Cosmic Standards, available in the Ink 19 archives) Nirav Soni’s opinion, was actually for awarded for Vandermark’s outstanding work in the field of biomedical engineering. They don’t just give that shit away to jazz musicians, after all. As you’ll read in Soni’s review, Spaceways Inc. was initially birthed to explore the work of Sun Ra (where they derive their namesake) and Parliament Funkadelic.
Version Soul, however, contains no covers. Out a million possible things you could say about this album, the most important fact for potential listeners out there is that it fucking slams. There isn’t a single unnecessary sound on the album. For a musical genre so indebted to flaw, to whim, or in other words, improvisation, Vandermark doesn’t make a single mistake. I think it’s what the bespectacled call “Tightness.”
The album is a carefully thought-out, composed jazz album. Filled with funk, dub, soul, and 20th century avant-garde styling, Spaceways Inc. is an album of inspired homage. Each Vandermark-penned track is parenthetically dedicated (for Frank Wright, for instance). McBride also gets to contribute several tracks, and if you’re concerned about the bassist holding is own against the Genius, there’s nothing to worry about. Version Soul is right on in a way that I can’t prepare you for.
In summation: Jazz isn’t the dominant popular music anymore. People might forget that jazz was pop music up until 1950, then rock became pop music, and now electronics are pop music. Our history is an integral part of our lives, however, and even in their most derivative modes of playing, Spaceways Inc. and The Gold Sparkle Band allow us to lucidly review where we’re coming from.