English Suites
(Wobbly Rail WOBOO9)

Few were surprised last year when Chicago reedist Ken Vandermark became the youngest ever recipient of the so-called "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation. A seemingly tireless composer, arranger, saxophonist, clarinetist and organizer, Vandermark is known as "the hardest working man in free jazz". But he hasn't limited his ambitions to himself. Forging partnerships with older free jazzers as well as younger musicians, Vandermark has continuously documented his work in North America and Europe.

With this two-CD set though, he's set himself another challenge. Basically the 30-something Vandermark goes mano-a-mano with veteran British drummer Paul Lytton. Not only was Lytton one of the founders of Euroimprov 30 years ago, but his most consistent reed partner has been fellow Brit Evan Parker, who practically invented a new saxophone language all by himself.

So how does Vandermark fare? Quiet well, overall. But like a saxophonist duetting with Elvin Jones, trying to avoid the specter of John Coltrane, he has to feint, jab and musically jump to avoid becoming a phantom Parker.

Unlike Parker Vandermark has an arsenal of reed weapons to call upon; he uses what sounds like tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet on these performances. Moreover, except for some brief periods in the "Stage" section, he stays away from Parker's nearly patented style of endless circular breathing.

Two different circumstances supplied the improvisations here. The first disc resulted from a radio concert in Chicago in January 1999; the second from a Belgium Sound in Motion festival 10 months later. Each approach is different as well.

In Chicago Vandermark uses a harsher tone which suggests someone like Frank Lowe, while plumbing the depths of sound one can get from reed instruments. Lytton does the same from his drum kit. Overall, while the tracks are longer, the improvisations seem quieter and more tentative than they would be in November. Moreover, sometimes the pauses and pace become a bit overwhelming, as if lack of the visual means the audience is missing one part of the equation: a strange predicament for a radio broadcast. With so much of the session mirroring the scratch-and-tap school of BritImprov, the most memorable sound comes on "Radio 1" and "Radio 7", when the duo seems to throw caution to the winds and really let loose.

Freer sounds dominate the second disc. Perhaps it's increased familiarity between the two, or the fact that Lytton now has his electronic tools on hand, but things seem much smoother. On Film 4, for instance, Lytton balances some cymbal scrapes plus spacey electronics whirrs and bites with Vandermark's almost-"legit" clarinet timbre. Then on Stage 3 it almost sounds as if the percussionist was slowly working his way through a junk pile as Vandermark outputs consistent saxophone blats sounding just this side of Big Jay McNeely. And there are similar duets throughout.

In short, ENGLISH SUITES is a good, but not great session that will probably be appreciated by many improv followers. The sneaking suspicion exists, though, that were Vandermark less concerned with documenting absolutely everything he does, the performances here could have been boiled down to a dynamic single disc

—Ken Waxman

Track listing: Disc One; 1. Radio 1 2. Radio 2 3. Radio 3 4. Radio 4 5. Radio 5 6. Radio 6 7 Radio 7 Disc Two: 1. Film 1 2. Film 2 3. Film 3 4. Film 4 5. Film 5 6. Film 6 7. Film 7 8. Stage 1 9. Stage 2 10. Stage 3 11. Stage 4 12. Stage 5

Personnel: Ken Vandermark (reeds); Paul Lytton (drums, percussion, live electronics)