It takes a certain kind of bravery for a saxophonist to walk onstage joined only by a drummer.
In this setting, there’s little room for error and no time for pause. Practically the entire weight of listener expectation falls upon the man playing the horn, while the drummer carries tremendous responsibility in providing color and rhythmic lift.
The two intrepid souls who took on this considerable challenge Thursday night at the Velvet Lounge rose to it, and then some. The first set by saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Tim Daisy, in fact, flew by in a flash, nearly every moment producing some kind of musical surprise.
If this was a taste of Vandermark’s residency at the Velvet Lounge, where he’s leading his long-running Vandermark 5 band on Saturday night, one can only hope he’ll turn up at the club more often. Then again, the Chicago musician – winner of a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant in 1999 – travels the world so inexhaustibly that any local sighting seems noteworthy.
Vandermark wasted no time asserting himself at the Velvet, offering dramatically charged oratory practically from the outset. All the rhythmic thrust and tonal power one associates with Vandermark’s work were clear to hear, but there was something else, too: a measure of control and clarity that has begun to define Vandermark’s middle years.
Though Vandermark was a hyperactive, fire-breathing soloist when he won the coveted MacArthur at the prodigious age of 34, his work has deepened and matured significantly since then. The 45-year-old musician who stood before a rapt crowd at the Velvet doesn’t merely blast away anymore. Instead, he constructs themes and counter-themes carefully; he builds to musical climaxes rather than simply showering one upon another and another.
There were moments during this set when Vandermark’s music turned downright lyrical, particularly when he switched to bass clarinet. Playing long-held notes and softly contemplative phrases, he revealed a facet of his music rarely heard in earlier years. The contrast between these disarming passages and the heaven-storming ones drove the proceedings forward.
Above all, though, at least one listener was struck by the intellectual rigor and thematic precision of Vandermark’s essays in sound. Pay close attention, and there was no mistaking the way the reedist built from one idea to the next, from one musical paragraph to another. In the past decade, or so, Vandermark has learned to harness his galvanic energy, to bring a composer’s craft to the improviser’s art.
Drummer Daisy, a seasoned Vandermark collaborator, consistently understated his work, giving the saxophonist ample room in which to navigate. Yet Daisy’s discreet accompaniment provided exactly what Vandermark needed: atmospheric color, rhythmic snap, provocative give-and-take.
The duo has documented this work on their recent recording “Light on the Wall” (Laurence Family Records). But it unfolded with particular eloquence in concert.
When: 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Velvet Lounge, 67 E. Cermak Rd.
Admission: covers vary; 312-791-9050 or velvetlounge.net
Originally published March 7th 2010 on chicagotribune.com