November 9, 2008
Atomic School Days
Okka Disk OD 12073
Ab Baars Trio & Ken Vandermark
Goofy June Bug
Without trying to make him sound celestial and selfless, Ken Vandermark is one of those rare musicians who is as comfortable in an ensemble as fronting one. Despite recording so often as leader, the Chicago-based multi-reedist is just as apt to show up on disc as an addition to an existing band or as part of a generically titled ensemble. That was happens on these two CDs.
Over the years, collaborations with Europeans have also proven to be particularly fruitful for the saxophonist and clarinetist’s musical growth. This is confirmed on Goofy June Bug and Distill with each offering a divergent – and equally notable – take on improvised and composed music.
Recorded live in Chicago, Distil showcases an octet comprised of the Norwegian Atomic band: trumpeter Magnus Broo, reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist, pianist Håvard Wiik bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love; plus those members of School Days – made up of Vandermark, Håker-Flaten, Nilssen-Love and Chicago-trombonist Jeb Bishop – who aren’t in Atomic, as well as Norwegian vibist Kjell Nordeson. Nine long tracks on this two-CD set, composed by different band members, offers everyone a proper showcase.
Goofy June Bug on the other hand adds Vandermark to the established Dutch trio of fellow clarinetist Ab Baars, which also includes drummer Martin Van Duynhoven and bassist Wilbert De Joode. Except for one brief group improv, the compositions are mostly by Baars with Vandermark contributing three.
Perhaps it’s the freshness factor, but two of these tunes are among the CD’s stand outs. “Waltz Four Monk”, for example, salutes Thelonious without implicitly aping the pianist’s style. With De Joode walking and Van Duynhoven leaning hard and heavy on his kit, the polyphony from Baars’ tenor saxophone and Vandermark’s clarinet bonds, then divides as the later flutters into squeak territory and Baars double tongues and masticates the kind of robust split tones that could have frightened Charlie Rouse.
“Memory Moves Forward” is a different matter. During its slightly more than nine minutes, Baars’ lucent and wispy shakuhachi timbres intersect with Vandermark’s equally high-pitched clarinet lines supported by col legno bass runs and mallet-driven clangs from the drummer. Later on the clarinet dips into chalumeau territory, while Baars’ Orientalized wheezing create a wholly different mood, especially when Van Duynhoven accompaniment sounds as if the drummer is manipulating a taiko drum.
Not that Baars’ writing isn’t distinctive as well, especially when all four musicians all involved in those themes. “Then He Whirled About”, “Honest John” – saluting long-time Sun Ra tenor saxophone soloist John Gilmore – and the title track postulate POMO tough tenor roles. Yet with the drummer also gliding from Boppy cymbal-clanging to free form rat-tat-tats, the harmonic interchange between the saxophones doesn’t resemble that found in standard two-tenor combos like Johnny Griffin and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis or Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.
Contrapuntal riffs, squeezed split tones and stressed cries owe more to the younger Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders at their fieriest, with both Baars and Vandermark scaling the heights of glossolalia, layering rubato honking, low-pitched slithers and, on the title tune, some resemblance to bagpipes into their blowing. Even at their wildest the two manage to rein in enough to allow heads to be recapped on most tunes. Elsewhere Baars’ clarinet work is feathery and impressionistic enough to be completely distinct from his sax solos.
Distinctiveness is the order of the day on Distil as well, with the octet members gobbling up whole swathes of jazz history as they play and spewing them out in reconfigured and characteristic forms.
Broo’s “Ghosts and Spirits”, with its offhand reference to Albert Ayler’s tune, manages to feature most of the band members, but in a form that owes as much to Count Basie-like effortless swing as Ayler. Here, as elsewhere on the set, Bishop’s gutbucket smears are prominent as is Wilk’s key-clipping and Nordeson’s contrapuntal asides. Encompassing brassy tongue sprays from the composer and high-frequency organic runs, overall the track belongs to the pianist. Moving from recital-like arpeggios to slashing and splashing comping he circles the others with allegro, kinetic patterns, spraying disconnect timbres that easily meld with the horn sections’ call-and-response vamps.
Meanwhile on a tune like Bishop’s “Deadline”, Ljungkvist provides a demonstration of how he may be the only Texas tenor who was born in Norway, honking his way into multiphonics, matched by Vandermark’s R&B baritone sax whoops. Nordeson’s vibe underpinning could come from Bobby Hutcherson’s work behind Gracan Moncur III, with Bishop in the later role. Over the stop-time theme, the trombonist twists grace notes, blows tremolo clusters and works out a series of slide flourishes extended with hand-muted intensity. Building up to piston-like syncopation, Nilssen-Love’s concluding solo seems linked more to Jo Jones or Gene Krupa than the expected John Stevens or Milford Graves echoes.
Other anomalies such as Håker-Flaten’s pumping bass line and harmonized reed polyphony share particular spaces; so does the cross-pollination of elongated altissimo clarinet shrills, virile trombone snorts and sprays, plus gamelan-like tuned gong resonations from the drummer. Together they spotlight the ensemble’s versatility. At times as well, pedal-point baritone saxophone riffs and choked valve brass lines combine in double counterpoint only to be subdued by roistering drum beats and key-clipping piano for further thematic definition.
Impressively, the distillation of Atomic School Days doesn’t only register on the agitato and fortissimo scale however. The bassist’s “Irrational Ceremony” is a quieter and more impressionistic piece that unrolls unhurriedly and smoothly. Well-recorded like the rest of the set, the scene-setting results from clave-like concussion from Nilssen-Love, descriptive low-frequency chording from Wilk, spraying vibraharp pulses and harmonically vibrated horns interaction.
Another Bishop paradigm, his solo here sluices upwards to double-tonguing from moderato flutter tonguing and throat growling, as beneath him the rhythm section gradually time-shifts to a faster tempo. As Wilk fans his keys, the piece then opens up enough so that Broo can express chromatic coloration with a series of concentrated triplets and tongue curving inflections. Eventually the final variation manages to mix murky trumpet smears and discordant backbeat rhythms, Free Jazz and Swing Jazz simultaneously.
Vandermark is the link between the sessions, but it’s the contributions of all the players which make the discs memorable. Ironically, Vandermark’s activities as a talent spotter and catalyst may ultimately prove more fruitful than his forceful soloing and writing.
— Ken Waxman
Track list: Distil: CD1: 1. Deadline 2. Irrational Ceremony 3. Visitors 4. Dark Easter CD2: 1. Andersonville 2. Fort Funston 3. Closing Stages 4. Ghosts and Spirits 5. Buñuel at the Coctail Party
Personnel: Distil: Magnus Broo (trumpet); Jeb Bishop (trombone); Fredrik Ljungkvist (tenor saxophone and Bb clarinet); Ken Vandermark (baritone saxophone Bb and bass clarinets); Håvard Wiik (piano); Kjell Nordeson (vibraphone); Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten (bass) and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums)
Track list: Goofy: 1. Straws 2. Honest John 3. Losing Ground 4. Waltz Four Monk 5. Prince of Venosa 6. Then He Whirled About 7. Memory Moves Forward 8. Munmyo 9. Return 10. Goofy June Bug 11. Lunch Poem
Personnel: Goofy: Ab Baars (tenor saxophone, shakuhachi and clarinet); Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Wilbert De Joode (bass) and Martin Van Duynhoven (drums)