ATOMIC/SCHOOL DAYS Nuclear Assembly Hall
Okkadisk OD 12049

More of an internationalist than most American musicians, Chicago-based reedist Ken Vandermark has made a point of forming concordances with European musicians. Not only is he one of the key constituents of saxist Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, but he often works in half-European/half American bands like the AALY trio, the Territory Band and the group featured here.

As its name makes clear, the octet combines the School Days band — Vandermark, trombonist Jeb Bishop, vibist Kjell Nordeson, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love — with trumpeter Magnus Broo, reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist and pianist Håvard Wiik who with Håker Flaten and Nilssen-Love make up the Scandinavian quintet Atomic. The results spread over two CD sides are dazzlingly spectacular.

Probably because all the players have a musical history with one another, the octet seems as well integrated as any fulltime group. No imperialist furthermore, the Chicago reedman spreads the compositional chores around, with every member contributing a tune — and Ljungkvist supplying two. A study in contrasts, his “W Meets A” is a straightahead swinger built on high frequency piano arpeggios plus ruffs and bounces from the drummer, while “Kerosene” is more complex.

Beginning with a light toned mixture of slurred sax and brass lines, Ljungkvist moves the tune forward in a moody Gerry Mulligan-like fashion on baritone while Wilk comps quietly and Nilssen-Love restricts himself to brushes. Taking his place upfront, Nordeson offers up some sparkling mallet turnarounds, then Bishop contributes double-tongued chromatic slide action. More rough Kid Ory than smooth Lawrence Brown, the ‘bone man develops a blossoming stop-time section, that mixes with the clean mellow clarinet lines of Vandermark. Meanwhile, polyphonically, the baritone, vibes and rhythm section mesh to repeat the theme.

Memorable on their own, the vibist and bassist skip from tractable, smooth lines on Håker Flaten’s “Green Wood” — which also features some Bill Evans-like piano chording and a thin screechy tone from a clarinetist — to forceful thrusting motion elsewhere such as on Bishop’s “Conjugations”.

A martial-like piece filled with chipping brass tones and unison coloratura timbres from both reedists on clarinets, “Conjugations” soon opens up with a walking bass line and quick clip-clops from the drums. As hocketing horns riff in the background, Broo promulgates slurred, muted grace notes to introduce a Håker Flaten-Nordeson duet. Resonating metal bars and strummed strings continue to play ring-around-a-rosy until plunger tones from the composer veers the tempo down to a blues-like march.

Vandermark’s almost 19½-minute “Bulletin”, which ends the set, also seems to be a compendium of all the eight can do. Following a calm, foreshortened piano intro, every horn explodes into an orgy of flutter tonguing and freak effects. Nordeson is simultaneously smoothly liquid and percussively resounding as first plunger trombone, than the other horns pass the theme back-and-forth. Bishop’s chromatic runs soon turn to broken chords, until Vandermark, on baritone, takes the lead. Pecking, snorting and tongue slapping, he propels the piece upwards until it reaches a polyrhythmic crescendo of recoiling horn textures that displace the tonal centre and only stop when the piece does as well.

If NUCLEAR ASSEMBLY HALL has a weakness, it’s that both Ljungkvist and Vandermark are listed in the personnel on “reeds”. Considering both play most members of the saxophone and clarinet family, you can’t unmistakably ascribe any singular solo to one or the other.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if despite all the recognition he has received as a composer and player — including a MacArthur grant — that years from now people decide that Vandermark’s main achievements was integrating American and European improvisation and improvisers?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. W Meets A 2. Transparent Taylor 3. Green Wood 4. Ink Worm 5. Kerosene CD2: 1. Conjugations 2. Dogdays 3. Light Compulsion 4. Bulletin

Personnel: Magnus Broo (trumpet); Jeb Bishop (trombone); Fredrik Ljungkvist (soprano. tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet); Ken Vandermark (tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet); Håvard Wiik (piano); Kjell Nordeson (vibraphone); Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (bass); Paal Nilssen-Love (drums and percussion)