Ken Vandermark’s Audio One is the newest of his 16 active projects, but the 10-piece ensemble is founded upon a web of relationships between the assembled players that spans over 20 years, and it owes its origin to a commission to explore music older than that. Its genesis was a series of concerts in Chicago that showcased his arrangements of inspirational free-jazz compositions—first those of Joe McPhee, and subsequently ’70s-vintage pieces by members of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and St. Louis’ Black Artists Group. After years of having to travel overseas to work with the half-European Resonance Ensemble when he wanted to lead a big band, Vandermark knew better than to let this one go. In early 2014 he added some of his own tunes to the repertoire and recorded the whole book during a weekend stand at the Green Mill. To inaugurate his new label, Audiographic Records, he is now simultaneously releasing one CD of covers and one CD of his compositions.
The original versions of the pieces on The Midwest School set an intimidatingly high bar to clear. Julius Hemphill’s “The Hard Blues” and the Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s “Theme For Yoyo” are life-affirming, prescient combinations of post-Ornette Coleman jazz and gutbucket r&b; Anthony Braxton’s “6C” does something similar for marching band music; and the last two tunes, one each by Hemphill and Air, are masterpieces of highly charged trio interaction.
Vandermark’s treatments generally adhere to the originals’ structures, but transcend them by reveling in bigness. The four reeds set up brac- ingly dense walls of sound, the rhythm sec- tion achieves a locomotive velocity and Jason Adasiewicz’s vibes generate cloudy sonorities that elevate the music’s ceiling straight through the roof. But in the midst of all the massiveness, there is also plenty of nuance and space.
Despite its title, An International Report feels like a homecoming. Vandermark has done the bulk of his work abroad in recent years, and you can hear evidence of it in the Ethiopian tinge to the album’s most jubilant moments. But not only has he assembled this band entirely from people who either live in Chicago or spend a lot of time here, he has provided it with compositions that evidence the Chicago scene’s gift for mixed modalities. Muscular horn charts open up into spacious, meter-free percussion discussions or quietly buoyant showcases for a single soloist, each change negotiated with a fluidity that comes from long-standing bonds of familiarity and empathy. There’s so much saxophone fortitude on hand that it is the non-reeds who really stand out—Berman and Paulson by virtue of the delicacy of their statements, and Bishop by the fluidity of his. Hopefully this is one band that Vandermark will find a way to keep going.
An International Report: Encyclopedia Of A Horse; Two Way Street; Atlas Of Madness; Vivre Sa Vie; The Floor. (66:59)
The Midwest School: C; The Hard Blues/Skin 1; 6C; Keep Right On Playing Through The Mirror Over The Water; Theme De Yoyo. (54:57)
Personnel: Jason Adasiewicz, vibraphone; Jeb Bishop, trombone; Josh Berman, cornet; Tim Daisy, drums; Nick Macri, acoustic and electric bass; Nick Mazzarella, alto saxophone; Jen Paulson, viola; Dave Rempis, saxophones; Ken Vandermark, Mars Williams, reeds.
Ordering info: audiographicrecords.com
Originally published in Downbeat Magazine October 2014