Dusted In Exile : Cherchez La Femme Review

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The title of Made To Break’s third long player does not seem to have as much to do with the old disco hit tune as with bandleader Ken Vandermark’s eternal pursuit of artistic essence. Whether performing solo, leading a big band, or preparing settings for musical heroes like Joe McPhee and Peter Brötzmann, he’s always trying to get at something, figure out what makes it work and move it along. So while it is valid to comment upon his music in terms of style and genre, you’ll get closer to his concerns by thinking about process. You’ll makes more sense of Cherchez La Femme (literally “look for the woman”) by scanning the dedications on this CD’s three long tracks — respectively to pairs of female artists in the fields of music, painting, and photography —than by listening to Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band.
However, those long-departed dance floor-fillers and Made To Break do share a common appreciation for groove. Throughout his career, Vandermark has usually had a group that allows him to flex his R&B chops, and Made To Break continues the practice he implemented with Powerhouse Sound of setting those elements in motion within an electronic sound field. Devin Hoff’s 6-string electric bass and Tim Daisy’s drums actually filter out a lot of the Powerhouse Sound’s funk in favor of something closer to the loose but unwaveringly purposeful beat patterns of This Heat or The Fall; at other points the reeds, bass, and drums abandon meter in favor of vigorous free improvisation. A more significant difference is that while the Powerhouse Sound filled the spaces between the beats with fast-moving clouds of noise, in Made To Break those gaps are one of the places where you can find the more detailed, disorienting, and elusive output of Christof Kurzmann’s lloopp software. Lloopp is an interface that allows musicians to use Max/MSP without learning how to program, and Kurzmann has been playing it for over a decade, long enough to develop a virtuoso command over its sampling, arranging, and manipulating capacities. Because he can do so much it, it is not always clear what he is doing.
The challenge of integrating Kurzmann into a setting where it’s pretty transparent what the rest of the players are doing is Made To Break’s central problem and artistic raison d’être. The first time I saw them, at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2012, he was a subliminal ambient presence behind the trio’s looming rhythms. With the latest version of the band (which swapped Hoff for either Nick Macri or Jasper Stradhouders) that toured the US in the spring of 2014, he is a destabilizer, ungluing and splintering sound. On Cherchez La Femme, you can hear the band trying to find the path between the two points. On “Capital Black (For Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell),” reeds, bass, and drums throttle back so you can hear him, riffing behind Kurzmann’s stacked and sped-up splinters of sax. On “The Other Lottery,” Vandermark’s clarinet creeps slowly through soft-sided squelches, opening the way for a passage of fractious free improvising where Kurzmann is as quick on his feet as the rest of the combo. But after Daisy’s solo, Kurzmann is the one trying to push his way in. The moments of imbalance should not be considered a flaw, but a revelation of process; this is actually a great record to play over and over in you are the sort of listener who likes to solve puzzles.

Bill Meyer

Originally published June 16th 2014