“Nine Ways to Read a Bridge” Reviewed in the New York City Jazz Record

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Ken Vandermark is one of the most prolific figures in contemporary music, leading multiple bands and participating in even more. He’s explored the repertoire of the historical avant garde extensively— from Jimmy Giuffre to Joe Harriott—and done a remarkable job of documenting his own music, from the Vandermark 5 to the Territory Band. Over the past 20 years he has become a central figure in free jazz.

Nine Ways To Read a Bridge is a celebration of Vandermark’s 50th birthday. The set documents another dimension of his work: ad-hoc free improvisation outside the bounds of such regular bands as Double Tandem, the trio with drummer Paul Nilssen-Love and reedplayer Ab Baars. Vandermark has been working in free improvisation with increasing frequency, most often in Europe, and he covers a remarkable range of aesthetics and approaches in the six CDs that make up this collection, each devoted to a different duo or trio. Each is a journey toward a unique creation, music-making at its purest and most demanding. Pianist Agustí Fernández is among Europe’s most creative free improvisers, a magnificent technician who has pushed the expressive potential of the piano’s interior as far as it has yet been revealed. Whether it’s strummed and scraped strings or dazzling end-to-end keyboard flurries, the Barcelona pianist’s work here is virtually orchestral, surrounding and pressing Vandermark’s lines in a remarkable display of duet playing that sometimes foregoes detailed interaction for the sheer sweeping passion of their lines.

If the piano is a traditional stand-in for an orchestra, Christof Kurzmann’s electronics might be a contemporary one. Kurzmann creates fields around Vandermark, sometimes picking up and matching his sonorities. The two create new ground on “Krakow index point 2”, with Vandermark matching potent R&B tenor à la Gene Ammons to the spacey backdrop. Two CDs follow in which Vandermark plays duets with crucial early influences and long-time collaborators. The CD with Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet and reeds produces the most traditional music of the set, a deeply felt summoning of spirits. “Milwaukee 4” has the air of a particularly intense spiritual while “5” and “6” match Vandermark’s raw baritone ostinatos with McPhee’s soulful blues exhortations on alto.

Guitarist Joe Morris had a singular impact on Vandermark’s musical development in Boston and they have a taste for high-speed freebop, so fast that they create phantom tertiary lines between them on the long and often playful dialogue that opens their meeting. The close interplay is just as effective when they dial it back to free ballad tempo on “Chicago 3”. The final two CDs are devoted to meetings with sharply contrasting, long-standing duos. First up are drummer Paul Lytton and trumpeter Nate Wooley, who can create powerful music with a minimalist rattle of tom-tom and bleat of trumpet. A key passage here begins as a kind of round initiated by Wooley, which Vandermark picks up and carries forward on baritone, generating tremendous heat in a formal way that can suggest some of the counter-thematic improvisations of Albert Ayler. The music’s freedom springs from constant shifts in direction, creating the sense of a large, shared canvas in which numerous
modes of production arise.

The final CD has Vandermark in concert with percussionist Eddie Prévost and pianist John Tilbury, the duo version of AMM, the improvising ensemble that the former has helmed for almost 50 years. An AMM performance is as beautifully still and abstract as the music of Morton Feldman, a particularly demanding form of collective improvisation that seems to massage silence. Vandermark enters wholly into the special sonic architecture in which AMM specializes, at one point matching his upper register clarinet sounds to Prévost’s cymbals in the transcendence of traditional sonic identities towards which this music moves.

What makes this set so remarkable is its consistency, both in its creativity and its empathy. Vandermark and his partners are wholly committed to collective invention and the partnerships work whether their shared histories are long or short.

by Stuart Broomer

Originally published in the January 2015 issue of New York City Jazz Record