Life as a jazz musician must be tough these days. Forget the ever-shrinking number of venues in which to ply your craft and low sales figures– the worst thing about it must be constantly hearing about how your art form is dying, dead, or long dead. Jazz may no longer hold the hallowed place in the American consciousness it once did, but it’s far from dead, and Vandermark 5 are one of the groups doing their share to keep it alive. Their music is primarily descended from two of jazz’s most radical strains, hard bop and free jazz, and on their eighth album, the quintet is in sharp form over two sprawling discs.
Ken Vandermark’s compositions here reflect two distinct areas of his headspace– four of them lean hard on wild improvisation, abrasive texture, and intensity, and the other four offer a more lyrical, traditional perspective on the group’s interplay. Personally, I’m fonder of the latter, and the difference is pronounced enough that separating the two camps on the two discs might actually have made sense. With upright bass, drums, two saxes/clarinets, and trombone, the band has a unique texture, and the harmonic structure of the songs is sometimes very ambiguous.
“That Was Now (for the Volcano Suns)” is a challenging opener, with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Daisy laying down a free bop rhythmic foundation for the horns to fight over. The rhythm section drops out completely for a few passages of unaccompanied horn madness, the kind of flights that invented the word “skronk.” “Burn Nostalgia (for Art Pepper)” operates in a similar vein, but “Camera (for Edward Weston)” purchase inderal no prescription takes the group’s out tendencies in another direction, opening with a long, eerie build on which Vandermark, Jeb Bishop, and Dave Rempis play drawn out chords that sound out of time. When the rhythms do kick in, Kessler plays a bizarre line, laying on long pedal tones and slowly descending over Daisy’s ride cymbal frenzy. “Road Work (for Merce Cunningham)” is primarily a wide-ranging conversation between Kessler and Vandermark’s soprano that’s as much duel as duet, though Bishop gets in some frightening blats on his trombone.
The rest of the record swings, slowing for the meditative Bishop-led ballad “Chance (for Nina Rota)” and latching onto a sweet noir swagger on “Suitcase (for Ray Charles, Elvin Jones and Steve Lacy)”, which features a great walking line from Kessler. “Pieces of the Past (for Joseph H. Lewis)” twists on a dime from driving swing to a spacy beat that the solos can really fly over. But my favorite track is “Vehicle (for Magnus Broo)”, which features spirited, melodic playing over a breakneck groove.
There are places where the band loses me a little, where some fiery playing wanders a little too far from a focused idea or the simultaneous soloing gets a bit too chattery, but this isn’t much of a strike against the record. This brand of jazz is about exploration and the thrill of following it, and not every path can lead to a pot of gold. That said, The Color of Memory keeps Vandermark 5 at the forefront of contemporary jazz and should mightily please anyone who’s enjoyed their past work.
By Joe Tangari
Originally published February 15th 2006