Ken Vandermark/Barry Guy/Mark Sanders

Fox Fire
Maya MCD 0901

Testimony to the infinite adaptability of first-class improvisers is this two-CD live set. It captures the first-ever recorded meeting among veteran British Free Music bassist Barry Guy, peripatetic American multi-reedist Kern Vandermark and in-demand English drummer Mark Sanders, who mid-wifed the session.

Throughout the contours of 10 instant compositions from Birmingham and Leeds concerts in the United Kingdom, the three mate extended techniques, split-second timing, pitch and timbre augmentation plus subtle dips into the tradition. The result lodged firmly within the collegial spirit of Free Music, is also a wholly original variant.

Each improviser can call on musical history within the genre. Leader of large ensembles like his New Orchestra, Guy has for decades been one-third of saxophonist Evan Parker’s similarly constituted trio with drummer Paul Lytton. Adaptable in situations ranging from solo to big band work with Americans and Europeans, Vandermark – who here plays clarinet and tenor saxophone – has probably recorded more sessions in the past two decades as Guy has in his 40-year career. Meanwhile Sanders has partnered a clutch of saxophonists, including Parker, Tony Bevan and Paul Dunmall, plus bassists such as John Edwards and Simon H Fell.

The Leeds concert in particular features nods to the tradition in Vandermark’s fruity saxophone tone on “Fuggle” which he uses when he’s not exposing elongated burbles and reed bites. As his shrills spiral upwards into over-blowing and tongue mulching, Guy matches him with scrubbed or string-splintering textures. When the saxman blows across the reed exposing moist, staccato pecks, the bassist alternates between sul tasto slices and methodically picked chromatic patterns. Backing them both, Sanders confines himself to hand patterning and cymbal pings. Furthermore, when Vandermark switches to clarinet, he ensures that every partial and timbre is exposed staccatissimo and stop-time, with the vector reaching broken octave harmonies.

Thick sputtering waves of free-form multiphonics which Vandermark exposes on “Challenger” confirms Parker’s influence on him, and this resemblance is intensified by the drags, flams and ruffs of Sanders – who been part of some Parker formations – and Guy’s familiar thumps and strokes. Turning the piece into a bass-drum showcase for a time, the bassist’s knife-sharp movements encompass squeaks, slices and quivers on many strings simultaneously as the drummer reveals a constant hand-foot/smack-smash/roll-paradiddle percussion landscape. Although the tenorist’s return with grainy, textures then touches manages to suggest both “The William Tell Overture” and the bossa nova. Sanders’ rebounds manage to be both agitato and balladic, introducing a conclusive bass string snap.

Comparable in-the-moment communication takes place on the Birmingham-recorded tracks as well. The more-than 22½ -minute “Kwingyaw” for instance boasts stellar work from each. Beginning with a drum solo that includes cross pulses, rolls, backbeat strokes and bass drum whacks, the piece evolves intuitively as Guy’s beneath-the-bridge rasguedo takes on erhu-like echoes; and as Vandermark’s multi-directional note smears manage to be both fortissimo and staccato, oscillating between rasping abrasions and glottal punctuation. Speech-like inflections from all encompass inchoate reed squeals, pealing cymbal expression and spiccato triple-stopping. Expressing himself in a cornucopia of tongue slaps, fog-horn blats and extensive glossolalia, Vandermark’s sprint to low-pitched bites signal the piece’s conclusion as do speedy drum strokes and chromatic string strums. On other tracks, affiliated skitters, scatters and shakes from the drummer on skin, wood and metal, ensure that no matter how many floating altissimo squeals Vandermark packs into his circular breathing a foundation is maintained.

Fox Fire provides a classic example of a first-class, one-off trio formation. Plus the sounds captured on the disc guarantee that this combo will be fondly remembered even if the three never record together again.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: CD1: 1. Katsina 2. Up North 3. Kwingyaw (For T. D-E) 4. Revontulet 5. Northern Lights CD2: 1. Fuggle 2. Aquila 3. Challenger 4. Omega 5. Nugget

Personnel: Ken Vandermark (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Barry Guy (bass) and Mark Sanders (percussion)