The academic establishment’s gradual acceptance of jazz as a valid, complex art has produced a legion of white guys in turtlenecks, intent on the nerdification of what had been an inherently pre-cognitive form of expression. Theory, however, tends to oppose creation, and jazz today is often either a painfully intellectual or quaintly nostalgic affair, leaving few modern performers that aim both for visceral impact and musical progress.
That aim at the visceral is what makes The Vandermark Five, a quintet of white guys in turtlenecks, so unexpectedly refreshing. The avant-jazz scene is filled with those who wish to expand its sonic palette, or redefine the term “jazz” entirely within a world of samples and post-modern jumble. It’s a rare group that purposefully and successfully advances the movement into modernity within the confines of a fairly standard ensemble, and the fact that traditionalists have questioned V5’s “legitimacy” only strengthens their position. A listener will find something immediately gripping about their newest recording, Elements of Style… Exercises in Surprise: It’s the sound of solid compositions filtered through unpretentious, energetic performing.
Though Ken Vandermark’s playing bears the stamp of Sun Ra’s influence, it contains none of the great spaceman’s studio experimentation; while his style is sometimes compared to John Zorn’s, one doesn’t get the same sense that Vandermark’s out to prove anything. His failure to indulge the time-honored Jazz tradition of honing persona and mystique may end up cementing him within the sidenotes, but it allows his playing to come across as sincere, egoless, and confident– an important vibe to transmit in such obtuse musical territory.
Confidence is an audible quality in any improvisational performance, but perhaps none more so than free jazz. It might seem anti-intuitive to attribute the success of a braying, squeaking solo to nearly imperceptible subtleties, but it’s the performer’s intense vision and forward momentum that can give the music its force, or render it aseptic. From the first freakout of opener “Outside Ticket [for John Gilmore]”, the listener is ready to place trust in Vandermark and his tight ensemble, rendered nearly telepathic in their musical communication from years of live performance.
Vandermark’s compositions strike a balance between surface-level impact and deeper complexity. In one of the album’s most solid tracks, “Knock Yourself Out [for Jean-Michel Basquiat]”, drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Kent Kessler work in tandem to constantly shift the downbeat, and flow from solid groove to controlled chaos in a heartbeat. Vandermark, Jeb Bishop and Dave Rempis begin with a straight ahead funky octave hook, moving quickly to far-out territory and back again; each return to the theme increasingly explores the polyrhythms inherent in phasing or inverting it, and each departure becomes more abstract and minimal. Their juxtaposition of such a standard hook with their wild soloing could be seen as humorous or sardonic, but the passion with which it’s all presented instead draws a connecting line from past to present. In “Telefon [for Glenn Gould]”, the quintet leaps from frenetic swing to microtonal drone and then back again, a structure of calm in the center of a storm that paints an image of the great Bach pianist Gould sitting in Zen bliss as counterpoint lines flow from his fingertips into the surrounding air. The pieces here are all dedicated to various artists who have pushed their forms forward while remaining cognizant of those who’ve preceded them, reflecting V5’s general preoccupation with their own place in jazz’s linear history.
Just as V5’s freedom within convention stands as a testament to their musicality, however, it’s also what holds them in place. While the jazz greats can be spoken of in their “phases” and “periods,” it’s not clear that Vandermark is headed anywhere in particular. Despite the success of these compositions and energy present in the recording, Elements of Style would add little to the collection of one who owns V5’s previous output. This pressing of the album includes a disc of Vandermark’s arrangements of songs by the great Rahsaan Roland Kirk, famous for playing several saxophones simultaneously. Vandermark’s arrangements are skillful, and an admirable attempt to focus attention on Kirk’s music, rather than the man’s defining gimmick. Ultimately, though, the recording feels dull– while the pieces seem like they’d be excellent live, the disc is not an engaging listen following the unhinged joy apparent in the first.
Ken Vandermark is in a tough position, attempting to hone a modern style that delivers satisfaction to the audience– to feel good about himself both as an artist and as a performer. He’s managed to find a successful balance of both, though his overall consistency is approaching stasis, and one hopes that he’s getting ready to mix things up or forge some new territory. Still, Elements of Style… Exercises in Surprise is a great album, and about as accessible as free-jazz can be. Full of energy and purpose, its should offer any music lover a refreshing oasis of excellent musicianship.
By Liam Singer
Originally Published August 22nd 2004