Two Days in December
Wobbly Rail 012

THE VANDERMARK 5 Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2
Atavistic ALP1372CD

Okka Disk 12050

Ken Vandermark seems to put out more discs in a year than some earlier jazzmen did in a career. But if he keeps turning out fine sessions like this single CD (ATLAS) and two double CDs, then there's little reason to complain.

Like other improvising musicians before him, the multi-reedman realizes that the best way to keep things fresh is to consistently change playing situations. On these five discs the circumstances range from a series of duos with four different Swedish improvisers (TWO DAYS); 13 recreations of 1960s-1970s advanced jazz standards with his regular quintet (FREE JAZZ); and a speedy romp through four original compositions as part of a 12-piece mixed American/European band (ATLAS).

The most challenging music is also the newest, recorded in December 2001, when the reedman was in Stockholm for two days. Disc One pairs him with saxophonist Mats Gustaffson’s playing partners in the band Gush: pianist Sten Sandell and drummer Raymond Strid. Disc Two features Vandermark duetting with guitarist David Stackenäs, also part of cooperative Scandinavian band Tri-Dim with Norwegian reedman Håkon Kornstad and percussionist Ingar Zach; or with vibist/ percussionist Kjell Nordeson, a member of the AALY trio with Gustaffson and Vandermark.

Unfortunately Stackenäs, who has done excellent work in the past on his own and matching licks with folks like British bassist Barry Guy, doesn’t really seem to connect with Vandermark. Even though the Chicagoan showed up with both of his clarinets and both of his saxophones, the seven tunes often become a ritualistic display of extended techniques rather than a mind meeting. Should the reedman output tongue slaps, key pops and mouth percussion, then the guitarist turns from acoustic flat picking to behind-the-bridge scratching. If Vandermark wheezes on his bass clarinet, then Stackenäs produces constant cadenzas. Squalling baritone saxophone lines encourage speedy strumming, while mid-range clarinet musings presage folksy accompaniment.

By these standards, “Upptornande stackmoln” has to be judged a success. Finally the polyrhythms conjoin, as off-kilter tenor saxophone chirps and slurs blend with multi-rhythmic National steel guitar-type sounds. Somehow, Vandermark’s straining, droning lines build on Stackenäs’ hedgehog scratches.

It could be increased understanding, or that unlike young Stackenäs pianist Sandell is a veteran with many cooperative sessions under his fingers. But his eight duets with Vandermark proclaim that here are two musicians in step with one another. Throughout, the Swede quietly demonstrates his piano mastery, playing what could be honky-tonk rhythms one minute, then diving into the deepest Cagean dissonance the next.

Take “Reeds and hammers VIII”, for instance. Beginning with full fledged saxophone blats and rolling high frequency piano arpeggios that roam all over the keyboard, wiggling honking slurs soon appear from Vandermark’s horn as Sandell splays out what could almost be player piano chording. Plowing rolling octaves means that you can imagine the pianist’s fingers blurring on top of the keys as he moves outside, successfully countering Vandermark’s honks and forays into dog whistle territory.

Multi-directed Sandell is as likely to go pure New music and reach inside the frame, producing metallic plinks, as he is to sculpt single sharp notes with minimal vibration and almost no tremolo. He works his way down to the very bottom of the keyboard, sustaining the rumble with his pedals on “Reeds and hammers I”, forcing the reedman to go south as well, just after the piano man has spent the beginning of the piece proving he’s a two-handed stylist with a faint suggestion of “I Got Rhythm”.

Vandermark uses false fingering and produces elongated single tones elsewhere or constructs a solo from the hiss of air forced through the horn. Then on “Reeds and hammers IV”, he spawns double-tongued blasts, one andante, the other staccato as Sandell’s pitch turns celeste-like and speedy. It almost sounds as if a trio is in the studio rather than a duo.

The remaining duos fall somewhat between these two extremes. Strid, who is part of Guy’s New Orchestra, along with tubaist Per Åke Holmlander and drummer Paul Lyton, who also plays in Vandermark’s Territory band, is another veteran improviser. Unlike many reed-percussion duos that appear to be stuck in a Trane-Ali INTERSTELLAR SPACE screech mode, this one is different. Strid aids Vandermark in that style in places, but also uses his percussion collection, which seems to include a glockenspiel, cow bell, wind chimes and guiro to move most of the tracks closer to a more spacious EuroImprov sound. With the clarinet in chalumeau register as on “Knapp” for instance, when Strid does use his kit he manages to merely touch individual parts at one time. Other times he’ll move the saxman into a Dexter Gordon-style emulation from wiggling dissonant tones, as he comments with straight rolls and paradiddles that could be produced with palms rather than sticks.

Nordeson, who is in the American/Swedish School Days band with Vandermark and Chicago trombonist Jeb Bishop, also shows off his percussion skills on what sound like unselected cymbals, here as well. “Always” is the most pertinent showcase, where, when he turns away from his bass drum pedal and tiny cymbal peals, he come across as a Scandinavian Candido — a Latin jazz percussion section all by himself — while Vandermark reveals a quick darting tenor tone. Many of the other tracks, however, feature a mixture of clarinet and vibes that will never be mistaken for Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton or even Buddy DeFranco and Terry Gibbs.

On the better tracks like “Where We Are” mallets seem to dance and glide over the metal bars, causing the clarinetist to abandon the comfortable chalumeau register for higher, more atonal pitches. Resonating metal swing is somehow replaced by harsh wooden-sounding awkwardness other places though. This makes Vandermark’s formerly euphonic clarinet or baritone improvisations appear excessively earthbound.

FREE JAZZ CLASSICS VOLS. 1 & 2 is another matter entirely. Initially each CD was designed as a limited edition bonus disk for two earlier Vandermark 5 CDs, but audience demand necessitated their standalone release. Although these live Chicago club sessions offer protracted sound pictures of the reedist’s working band of the time — including saxist Dave Rempis, bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna, as well as Bishop and Vandermark — the question remains of whether new versions of 1960s Free Jazz standards are really needed.

Well yes … and no. Vandermark et. al prove their mettle when they recast the tunes so that they reflect their input as well as that of the composers, who includes such heavy hitters as Sun Ra, Carla Bley and Julius Hemphill. The band wouldn’t want to be slavish re-creators of earlier sounds as happen on many of the albums by the so-called Young Lions.

Not everything works however. Too many of the numbers written by musicians as dissimilar as Ornette Coleman and Anthony Braxton, take on the same sort of freebop cast. Kessler’s rock-bottom bass sound and Mulvenna’s cymbal timing and snare shuffle are invaluable, anchoring the tunes to a solid swing beat. But often the rough edges and nonpareil melodies that defined the compositions vanish into the mainstream as well. It’s possible that Coleman never imagined that “Happy House” could be done with a Latinesque beat or that Cecil Taylor heard “Conquistador Part 2” with a bass part so unvarying that it could come from an electric instrument.

Furthermore, there also appears to be some role-playing going on. When it comes time to reconstitute something like Eric Dolphy’s “Gazzelloni”, Rempis’ alto saxophone solo appears to be a clone of those distinctive Dolphy runs. On Archie Shepp’s “Wherever Junebugs Go”, the tenor saxophonist — most likely Vandermark — mimics the older man’s abrasive, gritty tone to a T. Bishop fares much better. Since most of these compositions originally lacked a ‘bone part, he’s free to bring his particular vision to them. Thus Coleman’s line and Frank Wright’s “The Earth/Jerry” gain fat, wiggly plunger mute work, with allusions to Tricky Sam Nanton or Quentin “Butter” Jackson as much as 1960s — and present day — model Roswell Rudd.

Overall, lesser-known fare like the Wright piece and those by Jimmy Giuffre and Hemphill fare better than those by certified jazz icons. Bringing his reed arsenal upfront, Vandermark can pour out blusey clarinet arpeggios on one tune and pure bar-walking tenor saxophone squeals on others. He and Bishop often work in tandem, chewing up and regurgitating lines so that they assume a unique shape — if that metaphor isn’t too stomach churning. Lester Bowie’s sombre “New York is Full of Lonely People” allows Kessler to unveil his own solid arco tone, making the theme his own.

Arrangements, which meld the three horns into a powerful little big band section, are an impressive Vandermark achievement as well. This skill is brought into even starker relief on ATLAS’ four numbers, which range from a little over 12 minutes to almost 18½ minutes. Here his arranger’s modeling clay includes parts for Fred Lonberg-Holm’s cello, Holmlander’s tuba and Kevin Drumm’s electronics as well as more standard jazz band, reeds, brass and rhythm.

Consider, for instance, “Neiger”, which begins and ends with the grating dentist drill-like buzzing of Drumm’s electronics. In between bursts of the writhing, harsh tones you hear burbling tuba asides, ascending trombone lines and standard jazz piano chords from Jim Baker, all of which are soon superseded by an extended Sun Ra-like unison space chord explosion from the squawking horns. Axel Dörner’s quicksilver, buoyant trumpet tones vie for aural space with Kessler’s arco slides, until rolling drum pardiddles from Mulvenna and British improv veteran Lytton introduce Drumm’s intermittent drone.

“Catalog” written as an unconventional concerto for Chicagoan Lonberg-Holm finds the main soloist sliding from EuroImprov rasps and grinds to expressive legato lines plus some effects pedal electronics that have more to do with Jimi Herndrix’s guitar than anyone’s cello playing. As he solos, electronics crackle, a clarinet reed whistles, the percussionists produce miniscule chain rustles and triangle pings and the piano’s consonant voicing and a gently swinging horn choir cushion the soloist. The piece ends in a crescendo of horns, piano and electronics in different tempi, plus a decisive shotgun blast drum beat.

Elsewhere the usually meta-experimental Dörner soars on his open horn like Maynard Ferguson, Bishop unveils some rapid bebop-style riffs that prove he’s more than a wah-wah specialist and someone — Vandermark or Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist — creates some bottom-of-the-rain-barrel baritone sounds. Finally “Now”, the longest track, mates nightclub jazz piano with someone — Rempis, perhaps? — stretching a creamy Benny Carter-style alto saxophone solo with a shaking vibrato into New Thing altissimo squeals. Further back in the ballroom, the horns gradually get louder as they come up with a swaying Andy Kirk’s-Clouds-Of-Joy-via-Sun-Ra’s-Arkestra undercurrent chording. When the orchestral passages turn tutti, choral sounds discharge in all directions, with squealing brass, honking saxes and the diabolic drum duo bringing forth the power of another 1960s representation, the Jazz Composers Orchestra.

Scorecard: ATLAS is the best overall session and should be sought out first. TWO DAYS has good and bad points, as does FREE JAZZ CLASSICS. While not as outstanding, both two-CDs set have much to recommend them, especially for Vandermark fanciers, Free Jazz fans or EuroImprov followers.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Days: Disc 1: 1. Tuting 2. Rackarbajsare 3. Knapp 4. Dragnagel 5. Hutt 6. Parla 7. Reeds and hammers I 2. Reeds and hammers II 3.Reeds and hammers III 4.Reeds and hammers IV 5. Reeds and hammers V 6.Reeds and hammers VI 7. Reeds and hammers VII 8.Reeds and hammers VIII 9. Reeds and hammers IX Disc 2: 1. Tofsformade boljemoln 2. Fjadermoln med krokar 3. Slojmoln med halo 4. Boljemoln 5. Bymoln 6. Skiktmoln 7. Upptornande stackmoln 8. Pathways 9.Where we are 10. Doorways 11. Morning of Stagnelius 12. Always 13. Common prints 14. Sideways 15. Evening in Ashland

Personnel: Days: Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet); Sten Sandell (piano [Disc 1, 7-15]); David Stackenäs (guitar [Disc 2, 1-7]); Kjell Nordeson (vibes, percussion [Disc 2, 8-15]); Raymond Strid (drums [Disc 1, 1-6])

Track Listing: Free: Disc 1: 1. Happy House 2. 69L 3. Conquistador Part 2 4. Goodbye Tom B. 5. Saturn 6. Gazzelloni 7. New York is Full of Lonely People Disc two: 1. Wherever Junebugs Go 2. King Korn 3. The Earth/Jerry 4. Scootin’ About 5. C.M.E./G Song 6. There Is The Bomb

Personnel: Free: Jeb Bishop (trombone); Dave Rempis (alto and tenor saxophones); Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet); Kent Kessler (bass); Tim Mulvenna (drums)

Track Listing: Atlas: 1. Add and Subtract 2. Neiger [for Michael Snow] 3. Catalog [for Fred Lonberg-Holm] 4. Now [for Samuel Beckett]

Personnel: Atlas: Axel Dörner (trumpet); Jeb Bishop (trombone); Per Åke Holmlander (tuba); Dave Rempis (alto and tenor saxophones); Ken Vandermark (tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet); Fredrik Ljungkvist (soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet); Jim Baker (piano); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello); Kent Kessler (bass); Paul Lytton (drums); Tim Mulvenna (percussion); Kevin Drumm (electronics)