What Thomas Bernhard saw, he generally did not like. The Austrian author condemned most of what the society around him held dear, and his parting gift was a ban on the performance of his plays in his homeland that lasted over a decade and only ended because his heir undid it. It’s a curious title for bandleader/saxophonist/clarinetist Ken Vandermark to award to one of his more approachable recordings of recent times. While Vandermark has asserted that his practice of dedicating his compositions to artists is more a matter of shouting out appreciation than of explicit linkage, he’s also been a trenchant critic with plenty to say about the lot of artists, the low standards of contemporary music journalism and the general tenor of the times. Perhaps the name expresses sympathy with a determined fighter against his times? On the other hand, this is about as close to a gateway recording as Vandermark has made in a long time; the door, it would seem, opens as well as closes.
Audio One, it should be pointed out, is already an ex-Ensemble. That’s rather a shame, since its disbandment leaves Vandermark once more without a hometown outlet for his orchestration skills. He has been writing music for eight to ten member bands since the late 1990s, when he helped convene the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Octet (later Tentet), but for a big chunk of the 2000s they’ve mostly performed in Eastern Europe. This reflected both his interest in working with European players and the source of funding sufficient to convene a larger band. But what originally started as a one-off formation to perform some arrangements of material by Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, and other Midwestern free jazz pioneers worked so well that Vandermark kept it going for a couple years and three albums. What Thomas Bernhard Saw is the third and last of them. Audio One represented a renewal not only of Midwestern engagement but also long-established working relationships, since it included four ex-members of the Vandermark 5. It also allowed Vandermark to work at length with a newer cohort of musicians. Jason Adasiewicz, Nick Mazzarella, Josh Berman, Nick Macri, and Jen Paulson aren’t exactly new on the Chicago scene, but none of them had spent much time in another Vandermark band.
Macri’s presence is key here. He is more associated with song-oriented music than any other bassist Vandermark has used, and he spends at least as much time on electric as double bass over the course of What Thomas Bernhard Saw’s four lengthy tracks. While there are still moments where the beat vacates and free interaction between the horns takes over, the backbeats are crisper than the grooves Vandermark deployed in the Tentet, the Territory Band, or the Resonance Ensemble. The structures erected over those grooves leave more room for big, bold melodies that sound indebted to the music Vandermark made during his association with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya. There are still plenty of ripping solos and rich, complex textures, but this is music that moves, and it comes equipped with the hooks to snag you and take you with it.
So why did Vandermark close up the Audio One shop? One suspects that logistical challenges have a lot to do with it. A look at his current schedule reveals tours by smaller groups; he’s just wrapped up a tour with the Made To Break Quartet, and tours with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and trumpeter Nate Wooley are on the itinerary. But What Thomas Bernhard Saw shows that Vandermark still finds new things to say with bigger bands, so here’s hoping he figures out how to get another such group up and running.
Originally published at http://dustedmagazine.tumblr.com/post/143541797018/audio-one-what-thomas-bernhard-saw-audiographic, April 28th, 2016