Review of Provoke, Lacerba, Cherchez la Femme and Head Above Water / Feet Out of the Fire


How do you keep the music fresh, capturing the spontaneity and excitement of improvisation, but still utilizing notation to take a group places they otherwise might not reach? That’s the conundrum Chicago multi- reed player Ken Vandermark has pondered at length over the years. Now with his new electro/acoustic outfit Made To Break he explores the solution. The principle followed is modular organization. What that means is that not only is each piece constructed from a series of distinct defined modules, which can be deployed in ever-changing permutations, but that parts can be combined spontaneously by the various membersof the band, so the structure is improvised as well as the solos. It’s an idea Vandermark has touched on previously with his FME unit and the Frame Quartet, but it’s given free rein over the first three releases by the new unit.

Alongside Vandermark in Made To Break are two other Windy City denizens in drummer Tim Daisy, a long-term collaborator with the sadly missed Vandermark 5, the Frame Quartet and, more recently, The Resonance Ensemble, and bassist Devin Hoff, who has played in free jazz and avant rock alongside Nels Cline and Ches Smith, among others. However it is Christof Kurzmann, an Austrian residing in Argentina, whose maverick electronics add the most distinctive ingredient to the brew, via the medium of lloopp, software designed to promote live improvising, which notably allows him to layer textures and pursue multiple parallel courses, offering either oblique commentary or contrary reaction.

Issued at the same time, Provoke and Lacerba present the fruits of a three-day concert series in Lisbon, Portugal in 2011 during Clean Feed’s 10th anniversary festival, the former in CD format containing three cuts and the latter, at Vandermark’s request, as an LP boasting two tracks, all around the 20-minute mark. Vandermark’s innovative methodology achieves a blend in which pronounced thematic materials surface from the flow, often seamlessly through an apparently organic process, but occasionally as the result of an abrupt switch. A favorite tactic sees the interpolation of lockstep rhythms, making for a startling contrast with some of the more open forms.

“Presentation” from the CD provides a striking example of what can be accomplished. At the outset Kurzmann’s intermittent electronics create an otherworldly soundscape, evoking menacing helicopters, radio interference, phantom cries and alarm clock beeps. From this cacophony emerges a steady pulse from clarinet and gently tapping drum kit and later an electric bass drone. Gradually a tiptoeing line for Vandermark’s clarinet, with Daisy supportive on brushes, acts as the basis for the consequent interplay. Suddenly Hoff breaks in with an aggressive riff, joined by Vandermark’s skirling tenor saxophone, fast-ticking cymbals and whooshing electronics. But the tour de force comes as the band syncs into a gritty R&B-inflected incantation (to which Kurzmann introduces a swarm of buzzing imitations of the saxophone) for a frenzied conclusion.

Cherchez La Femme was recorded in the studio some 18 months later, but still retains the same mix of unpredictable thrills and strangely familiar settings. Even though Vandermark draws from a whole range of inspirations, including funk, rock, European free improvisation and the New York School of composition (John Cage, Morton, Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown), the outcome remains recognizably within the jazz domain due to the instrumentation and unfettered framework.

At the heart of the group lies the simpatico union of Vandermark and Daisy, most conspicuously at the start of “Capital Black”. But while they are a tested formula, each module opens up further possibilities of other duos and group interactions. Later in the same number, a reflective passage hinges on the amalgam of rippling bass and soothing lullaby-like phrases from clarinet, which recalls a similar gambit on the “Further” from the first CD. However, here it leads to more mayhem from Kurzmann, as an electronic storm threatens to intrude on the pastoral idyll. Although some of the abstract textural sections edge close to ambient music, there is sufficient attitude in Vandermark’s spirited delivery, particularly on baritone and tenor saxophones, to dispel totally any incipient new age atmosphere. Daisy and Hoff mesh well, so that when the band hits, as it does for many of the best moments, it’s done with affirmative power.

Head Above Water, Feet Out of the Fire comprises two sets, one documented live in Belgium in March 2012 and the other recorded in a Chicago studio five months later. With the Resonance Ensemble, Vandermark supplements an already impressive resume? of writing for large gatherings of improvisers. Precursors include early editions of Peter Bro?tzmann’s Chicago Tentet, as well as Vandermark’s own various Territory Bands. His craft allies imaginative non-repeating charts with space for enthralling soloists and cohesive collectives. One could say that his success lies in executing the mobility and tightness of a small unit with an outfit numbering at least ten strong. Even though the cast hails from four different countries (the US, Sweden, Poland and Ukraine), they still work in a jazz syntax. Spacey interludes, frequently those spotlighting the assorted clarinets of the leader and the Polish pairing of Miko?aj Trzaska and Wac?aw Zimpel, rub shoulders with alt rock, improv, African cadences and modern classical influences, as well as jazz.

Once again Vandermark employs the modular approach. At its most obvious that results in both “Type A” and “Lipstick In Hi-Fi”, beginning with what sounds like the same cooking theme, which could have come from the Vandermark 5 songbook, before an event for Per-A?ke Holmlander’s virtuoso tuba and a subsequent tenor saxophone explosion by Dave Rempis, probably the most effective soloist on board thanks to preternatural fluency supercharged by bursts of feral energy. But thereafter divergent outcomes ensue, as Vandermark exploits the talents on hand to the max. There is just one small downside: as with previous Resonance Ensemble outings, enjoyment would be enhanced even more if some indication of soloists/featured players were given.

For more information, visit, and Made To Break is at Le Poisson Rouge Apr. 23rd. See Calendar.

By John Sharpe

Originally published in the April 2014 issue of the New York City Jazz Record