“Triptych”, “Burning Bellow Zero” and “Splinters” Reviewed in NYC Jazz Record

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Reedplayer Ken Vandermark has made Chicago his home for close to three decades, sustaining a DIY career in creative music. Three projects show three similar but different instantiations of his musical art.

Triptych is a trio outing with drummer Tim Daisy and clarinetist Michael Thieke, Vandermark on bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. The brief set of three compositions (all by Daisy) and five improvisations achieves a nice balance of freedom and restraint. “At Argyle” is an infectious swinging theme in 6/4, Vandermark’s rich vibratoless clarinet ringing clear across the horn as he sets a solo course, Thieke’s higher soprano liquid and breathy by contrast. The serpentine melody of “Yellow Fern” coils around itself in beat- groups of five, Vandermark sounding low foghorn growls on tenor, Thieke high and falsetto, both bouncing between registers to create the effect of three or even four horns blowing. “Tuesday at Noon” is a beautiful ballad led by Thieke, Vandermark’s obbligato parts growing more assertive, Thieke taking a meditative solo of whistling keening long-tones. The remaining tracks include two free duets—Vandermark and Thieke’s aping a heated political argument; Daisy and Thieke’s more elliptical—plus three soliloquies: Daisy’s short, organically constructed piece ends with a toy train-like effect; Vandermark’s raucous bass clarinet solo recalls a small terrier responding to a strange knock at the door; and Thieke’s closing statement alternately chirps and whines in split-note sonorities.

The close chemistry of the DEK Trio, named for drummer Didi Kern, pianist Elisabeth Harnik and Vandermark, is well represented on Burning Below Zero, a live recording at Raj in Klagenfurt, Austria. Although the mic’ing doesn’t pick up all of the piano’s delicate nuances, much detail remains in the two epic tracks and brief closer. “Raj One”, almost a half-hour long, is a through-improvised musical movie of diverse acts and scenes. Vandermark’s big-toned tenor and even bigger- toned bass clarinet, which he switches to mid-track, form the tonal center while Harnik’s extended techniques, including unusual implements to scratch, scrape, rub, swat, rake or pluck the exposed strings, fill out the set piece. “Raj Two” shows a wider dynamic range and features Vandermark on soprano, then bass clarinet and finally tenor; after the group ad-hocs a major/minor ballad in E-flat, his unadorned solo ushers in a gentle ruminative ending centered around C-Major. The rowdy finale, “Raj Three”, is dense and percussive, quickly mounting to and maintaining an intense climax, a fulfilling conclusion to the irenic ambiance established during the previous track.

In some ways Vandermark and left-handed Dutch guitarist Terrie Hessels (founding member of avant- punk group The Ex and Vandermark’s bandmate in the quartet Lean Left) are like Yin and Yang—or perhaps Yang and Yin—a pairing of opposite roles constantly changing into each other. On Splinters, a compilation of two different recording dates one year apart, Vandermark represents the explorer, following a musical trail from Point A to Point B to many points beyond. Hessels represents the delayer, the disrupter, the trickster who questions every turn, explores every detour along the way. Eschewing the chords and melodies germane to guitar, Hessels draws on a lexicon of dissonances, rattles, knuckle-scratches, squeaks, buzzes, echoes and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. But the roles are blurred, then reversed when Vandermark begins to thump his keys or tongue-slap his reed, when his clarinet buzzes like a frantic bee under glass, when his tenor whistles like a boiling tea kettle—the explorer delayed, the disrupter following. The first three tracks, frenzied “Éclats”, aggressive, head-banging “Astillas” and a quieter “Hahen”, all from first session, set the stage for the sweeping expanse of “Splitter”, a kinetic odyssey through highs and lulls, calls and responses, pushes and pulls, whispers and yells.

For more information, visit timdaisy.com, trost.at and audiographicrecords.com. Vandermark is at The Stone at The New School Jul. 28th-29th. See Calendar.