In the liner notes for Provoke (Clean Feed), last year’s debut album by his quartet Made to Break, reedist Ken Vandermark writes that the band emerged from two impulses or threads he’d been exploring over the years with other projects. He first cites FME and Frame Quartet as ensembles that explored modular forms—compositions with multiple moving parts that can be reordered on the fly by participants; then he cites Spaceways Inc. and Powerhouse Sound as groups exploring his interest in funk, reggae, and the early-70s electric music of Miles Davis. Made to Break was formed in the summer of 2011 with drummer Tim Daisy, bassist Devin Hoff (then living in Chicago), and the Austrian electronic improviser Christof Kurzmann; the group performed at the 2012 Chicago Jazz Festival, when Vandermark was artist-in-residence.
I liked the music on Provoke—and its vinyl-only counterpart Lacerba—and I enjoyed the group’s performance, but neither prepared me for the band’s latest effort, Cherchez la Femme (Trost). The album was recorded in Vienna last March and it definitely feels like the product of a working band. Granted, given the busy schedules and numerous projects of its participants, Made to Break only operates in sporadic bursts, but it really feels like they’d become a much stronger, intuitive unit over a couple of years. It’s at once more fluid and more surprising in its trajectory. The album features three extended episodic works—those modules that are sequenced in advance before each performance—with multiple rhythmic patterns, melodic shapes, and moods. Vandermark, Daisy, and Hoff are essentially the core band, although all three have plenty of improvisational freedom, while Kurzmann is, according to reedist’s notes for Provoke, a “free agent.” Sometimes he plays patterns or lines that complement the actions of his cohorts, but he also samples and refracts their spontaneous line, creating a dynamic feedback loop that forces everyone to adjust and respond.
In those same notes Vandermark adds, “Because the formation of each piece is unrehearsed, it’s impossible for a performer to anticipate another player’s choices by becoming overly familiar with the arrangements or memorizing the sequence of events—the material is organized to demand listening and improvising on as many concurrent levels as possible. The music of Made to Break is a form of problem solving in real time, expressed with sound.” Few musicians have confronted ways of structuring or inspiring fresh improvisation as rigorously as Vandermark—a guy whose practice as a composer always seems to be driven by what his writing will provoke in improvisers. His pieces for Made to Break certainly prove that ethos, and the presence of Kurzmann’s interactive processing only heightens the effect. Below you can check out the opening track from Cherchez la Femme, a typically shape-shifting excursion called “Sans Serif (for Betty Davis and Sleater Kinney).” Made to Break will give a rare Chicago performance at the Hideout on Wednesday night. Beginning with this performance Chicagoan Nick Macri replaces Hoff.
By Peter Margasak
Originally published May 6th 2015 at: http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2014/05/06/the-evolution-of-ken-vandermarks-made-to-break