Double or Nothing
Okka Disc OD 12035

In Our Time
Okka Disc OD 12041

Version Soul
Atavistic ALP 130 CD

Eventually Ken Vandermark is going to have to stop wearing his emotions —and influences — on his sleeve and CD booklet.

Now that the Chicago-based reedman has established himself nationally and internationally as an extender and interpreter of free music, aren’t the dedications he appends to each of his original compositions getting to be a bit redundant?

He was honored with the so-called “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation a couple of years ago, has proved himself a valuable contributor to musical situations ranging from duos to big bands and constantly records with his own or cooperative groups. So isn’t it about time to acknowledge that audiences can now be as interested in his tunes for what they sound like rather than whom they honor.

Perhaps this need to link himself to “the tradition” is a sign of modesty or even self-abasement. The former is a more attractive emotion than the later, but neither is necessary. Vandermark’s various bands haven’t yet produced one masterwork, but despite some inconsistencies, are still creating a shelf of memorable work.

Take the discs at hand for instance. Two involve him with Europeans; the last is an all-American product.

DOUBLE OR NOTHING was recorded in 1999 as a match up between his Chicago-based SKV trio — Vandermark, bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Hamid Drake — and the Swedish AALY trio — saxist Mats Gustaffson, bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten and drummer Kjell Nordeson, a band which has frequented toured with Vandermark as a guest. The idea seemed to mix and match twinned instrumentalists sort of like Ornette Coleman’s FREE JAZZ or the recordings by the late Glenn Spearman’s double trio.

The only other time Vandermark tried a similar experiment was in 1986 with UTILITY HITTER, where he matched the members of his Boston trio, including bassist Nate McBride, with Chicagoans. But while that session broke down into duo and trio showcases DOUBLE OR NOTHING — an apt title — is a group effort. In fact, with only three tunes examined in nearly 52 minutes, the similarities among the six improvisers are on view much more than their differences.

Strangely enough, the bass duo get to show off, not on the first tune, dedicated to bassist Henry Grimes, but at the beginning of the medley of the final two, written respectively by Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, both of whom employed Grimes on important 1960s LPs. Spending almost the first five minutes with one arco bass playing in a high register, and the other bowing at an even more elevated pitch, reverberating, woody thrusts finally elaborate the theme.

Before both drummers redefine themselves with the combination of snare bashing and a sound that resembles door knocking, a characteristic of Ayler’s drummers like Sunny Murray, both hornmen have unleashed a symphony of glossolalia, producing as much spit as overtones. Vandermark rumbles contentedly and straightforwardly on bass clarinet while Gustaffson uses growls, smears and lingual tones to produce what could be the first off-side variations on “God Save The Queen” or is it “A Love Supreme”?

Fitting the front line like a plug in an electrical socket, the Cherry tune recalls the time he was part of Ayler’s band. Here, as Gustaffson elaborates the head at half tempo, Vandermark on tenor showcases some flutter tonguing and vibrato overflow, backed by the buzzing of bowed basses. These hoards subside for a time as Nordeson uses snares, toms and cymbal to attach his soloing to Elvin Jones’s lineage.

If Nordeson, who made his reputation in Sweden with pianist Per-Henrik Wallin and the Low Dynamic Orchestra, channels Jones on the first disc, which was recorded in Chicago, he was in full Bobby Hutcherson-Gary Burton mode as a vibist on the second. A live session from Oslo’s Blå club done late in 2001, it matches Vandermark and Håker-Flaten with the two other members of the School Days group — American trombonist Jeb Bishop and Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love — plus the vibraharpist.

Because of the novelty of his instrument — at least in this context — Nordeson ends up front and centre most of the time, while the configuration is strongly reminiscent of those Archie Shepp bands that featured Hutcherson plus Roswell Rudd or Grachan Moncur III on trombone.

In a program featuring one Bill Evans tune, a different Cherry line, one by Bishop and four Vandermark originals — all with dedications — this is definitely a jazz record with a lot of theme-solo-solo-theme work. Also, in a club space, the five fare best on the faster tunes, with the slower ones dragging a bit. As a matter of fact, tunes like “Off The Top” dedicated to organist Larry Young, really end up resembling the sort of hummable soul jazz that coexisted with The New Thing in the 1960s. Bishop may be double-tonguing like Moncur, but Vandermark ends up rearing back and honking like Stanley Turrentine or one of the other boss tenors of that era.

Constant vibe accents, probably played with four mallets, enliven “What About”, which is even dedicated to Hutcherson. More of his own man, though, Nordeson brings a hefty marimba-like tone to his solos that extend on top of tasty Nilssen-Love brushwork. Then at the end, the theme, which initially pinponged between Bishop’s comfortable middle register and Vandermark’s horn, resolves itself into something that could be a mid-1960s Blue Note records boogaloo.

Closer to the Shepp-Hutcherson-Moncur aggregations, Bishop’s “Octopus” is almost sabotaged by under-recording — at least you have to strain to hear the fleet mallet work. The composer himself lets loose with some growling shout choruses, goosed by the speedily vibrating metal bars. Soon the long-limbed trombone spit and polish is joined by Vandermark on tenor, trilling, double timing, and flutter tonguing. Powerhouse drumming pushes the saxman still further into lingual multiphonics until the entire aggregation brings back the head.

IN OUR TIMES’ music that slithers from cloistered to on the corner and back again, with the emphasis on party time, also has its parallel in VERSION SOUL, recorded two months earlier in Chicago. Credited to School Days, this trio has Vandermark on clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones, Drake on drums and guesting from Boston, McBride on bass and electric bass.

It’s the last instrument that distinguishes this session from the others. In spite of claims made for its suppleness when played by so-called fusion masters, the electric bass like the electric keyboard can’t produce the same individual touch that an acoustic instrument can. So while rhythmic input goes up exponentially on those tracks on which it’s featured, one potential solo instrument is removed from the mix.

What's more, during the course of the nine foot-tappers that make up the disc, Vandermark seems to have put himself on the horns of a dilemma — pun intended. Boasting dedications encompassing artists as different as Reggae forefather, keyboardist Jackie Mittoo, abstract painter Mark Rothko and Larry Graham, bassist for Graham Central Station and Sly and the Family Stone, Vandermark seems to be struggling for his individuality here. Should he concentrate on being an out-and-out raucous player like the usually anonymous saxists who provided instrumental breaks in funk and reggae singles; or should he be a highbrow improviser. He tries both identities on for size here with mixed results.

“Back of a Cab”, for instance, which tries for a prototypical ska or rock steady rhythm courtesy of Drake’s woodblock percussion, doesn’t really follow through when it comes to Vandermark’s sax lines. His squeaks and gentleness seem out of place and when he uses fewer notes than usual it sounds as if he’s holding himself back. Much more impressive is “Clocked”, where the drummer’s heavy, but not overbearing effects suggests both the Crescent City and JA. With McBride thumb tapping on his electric bass, making like The Meters’ George Porter, the reedist adopts a tone that’s midway between reggae and 1950s’ New Orleans R&B, where Lee Allen’s baritone sax reigned supreme.

Probably the most impressive performance comes on “She Just Got Here” though. A McBride line with no attached musical baggage or dedication, it slips along on a Drake created reggae backbeat and some in-your-face fuzztone courtesy of the composer’s electrical outlet. Mixing his rock and his reggae, Vandermark seems perfectly content to honk away.

This overblowing is put to a more cerebral use on “Force at a Distance”, a salute to New Thing honker tenor saxophonist Frank Wright — who, incidentally, also recorded with Henry Grimes. Apparently comfortable emulating the style of a man who always mixed gospel and blues with his Energy music, Vandermark sounds more sure of himself, indulging in extended harmonics and holding notes for an inordinate length of time. Meantime Drake glides all over his kit with the strength and imagination Wright should have got from his percussionists, and alternately plucking and bowing his acoustic upright, McBride holds everything together with strength unparalleled elsewhere.

Odd number out here, “Rothko Sideways” the CD’s longest track, is muted and melancholy, with Vandermark on clarinet relating more to Jimmy Giuffre’s early 1960s work that was as far away from pop music as British crumpets are from West Indian patties. A slow-moving, low-key recital, Vandermark’s reedy output is shadowed step-by-baby-step by McBride’s talents on the acoustic, with Drake contributing little more than the occasional cymbal splash or — appropriately — brush stroke.

Here are three more, wildly different, contributions to the Vandermark discography, which will probably be sought out by the reedist’s many fans. Each has something to recommend it, though overall it seems that Vandermark’s chameleon personality often needs another strong horn player to provide contrast. That’s why IN OUR TIMES is probably the most interesting of the three.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Double: 1. Left to Right 2a. Angels 2b. Awake Nu

Personnel: Double: Mats Gustafsson (alto and tenor saxophones); Ken Vandermark (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone); Kent Kessler and Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten (bass);

Kjell Nordeson and Hamid Drake (drums)

Track Listing: In: 1. Another Double 2. Off the Top 3. What About 4. Shift 5. Octopus 6. Loose Blues 7. Elephantasy

Personnel: In: Jeb Bishop (trombone); Ken Vandermark (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone); Kjell Nordeson (vibraphone); Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten (bass); Paal Nilssen-Love (drums)

Track Listing: Version: 1. Back of a Cab 2. Reasonable Hour 3. Size Large 4. Journeyman 5. She Just Got Here 6. Clocked 7. Rothko Sideways 8. Force at a Distance 9. All Frequencies

Personnel: Version: Ken Vandermark (clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor and baritone saxophones); Nate McBride (bass and electric bass); Hamid Drake (drums)