Geography Lesson: Vandermark’s Midwest School and Monterey’s 55th (Excerpt)


The brawny, brainy music that Ken Vandermark presented over the weekend at the Green Mill Jazz Club appealed to many sensibilities.

For starters, the very sight of nine instrumentalists crowded onto the tiny stage of the Mill — each a force in his or her own right — suggested music-making of ample muscularity. If you wanted to hear a great deal of sound in a tightly compressed space, you probably had come to the right place on Saturday night.

Add to this the particular nature of this venture, which Vandermark titled the Midwest School, and it was clear that there was more than just sonic power behind the enterprise. Vandermark convened most of these players last June to explore — and re-conceive — the music of Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill. Each flourished as composer-instrumentalist in Chicago or St. Louis during the 1960s and ’70s, but this repertoire rarely is gathered in a single program for vigorous re-examination.

And that’s exactly what it received, with Vandermark and the Midwest School performing his bristling arrangements, each of which afforded soloists considerable room for far-reaching improvisation. The musicians did not approach this music with too much reverence, instead giving full voice to its ferocity while reshaping it to reflect the talents of current Chicago players.

The ensemble showed its firepower from the outset, with a punchy reading of Hemphill’s aptly named “The Hard Blues.” To hear the front line of reeds and brass delivering the scorching main theme was to understand instantly these musicians’ commitment to this work. Before long, Dave Rampis was dispatching rangy lines on baritone saxophone, the band punctuating his statements with sharp, slashing counter-motifs. Josh Berman’s cascades of notes on cornet, Jeb Bishop’s fleet figures on trombone and Vandermark’s hot, high-register passages on bass clarinet pointed to the imaginative powers of the evening’s soloists.

Not all of the music, however, was intended to rattle the floorboards. In Threadgill’s “Keep Right on Playing Thru the Mirror Over the Water,” the ensemble produced a gentle, glowing lyricism of disarming beauty. Violist Jen Clare Paulson established the poetry of the performance with her opening solo, the radiance of her tone enhanced by the serenity of her delivery and the multiplicity of lines she sustained. Drummer Tim Daisy’s exquisitely sensitive gestures with mallets and bassist Nate McBride’s arching countermelodies further conveyed the delicate esthetic of the piece.

Elsewhere in the evening, the Midwest School contrasted bracing rhythmic energy with fervent blues expression in Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 6 C,” the opus yielding propulsive solos from saxophonists Nick Mazzarella and Mars Williams. And the band achieved lustrous colors and refined ensemble playing in Threadgill’s “Untitled Tango.”

All of which was recorded. If the forthcoming release captures the expressive range and tonal clarity of Saturday’s performance, it could represent a high point in Vandermark’s work as arranger.

Originally published March 25th 2013 on

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