If you measure significance by longevity and productivity, Made to Break is one of Ken Vandermark’s top bands of the past ten years. The quartet, which currently comprises drummer Tim Daisy, electric bassist Jasper Stadhouders, electronic musician Christof Kurzmann and Vandermark, tours almost yearly despite having holders of three nations’ passports within its ranks. Trebuchet is their eighth velease, if you count the three download-only concert recordings that he issued simultaneously on his Audiographic imprint in 2016 as separate albums.
Look it up on his website if you doubt me; Vandermark plays in a lot of bands and makes a lot of records. While it is possible to just show up to a show by any of his bands and let yourself be wowed by the stern energy of his playing on a variety of reeds (tenor and baritone saxophone, Bb and bass clarinet), and virtually all of his records reproduce real-time performances, you’ll miss a big part of what he’s about if don’t check them out as well. Each album plugs you into vast network of efforts, associations and evolutions. The extra-musical information that accompanies each disc or download invites the listener to hear not just the music, but also to consider why and how it was made and how the particular group of players who made it with him have accommodated or challenged each other in order to make it.
Vandermark studied film, takes photographs and pays close attention to other art forms. Titles and dedications tell you what’s on his mind as he makes the music, and if you’re in doubt about the reason for a reference, look for the example. “Hydroplane” is dedicated to the band Shellac, and while it doesn’t sound much like Steve Albini & company’s music, it’s worth noting that Albini has striven to keep technical quality and ethical principles central to his practice. Second point, Shellac’s bassist Bob Weston recorded and mixed this record. “Contact Sheet ” is for Susan Sontag, a cultural critic whose willingness to document her evolving understanding of art, herself and the world corresponds to Vandermark’s documentation of musical and interpersonal processes with his records. And “Slipping Words against Silence” honors Kerry James Marshall, an African-American whose paintings have used informed interrogations of painting conventions to challenge the position of black people as figures to be talked about rather than first-hand speakers and analysts of their own experience. Vandermark’s not just shouting out appreciation; he’s setting himself a bar to clear. A record isn’t just a set of music, but part of a body of work that engages the world in which he operates and charts his own development as a maker, instigator and responder to creative activity.
Reckon also with this; a trebuchet is an engine of war. It’s a struggle to sustain creative relationships across national and geographic boundaries in an age when creativity, mobility and thoughtful discussion are all suspect, and all the money is being vacuumed out of the arts and concentrated in a small number of hands that are generally unencumbered by humanitarian concern. It’s a fight to keep playing hard-edged, improvisational music. It’s a constant challenge to keep growing when, like Vandermark, you’ve already been pushing for over 30 years.
So how does Trebuchet factor into all of this? The Made to Break template is, ironically enough, a very sturdy one. Take an assertive bassist who isn’t afraid to bring a bit of funk to the mix and a drummer who has been a continuous companion for about 20 years, and you’ve got a pretty perfect setting for the bar-walker grooving, Brötzman-esque barking and rippling, interval-leaping runs that constitute the more muscular side of Vandermark’s playing. But comfort isn’t part of the program here, and Vandermark isn’t satisfied with simply kicking some funky fire music ass. Made to Break is a statement of intent, not just a catchy name, and the fourth member of the band is there to make sure things don’t get too easy. Christof Kurzmann plays ppooll, a piece of open-source software that allows him to sample, generate and manipulate sounds at speed. While he isn’t averse to interjecting washes of static, fragments of speech and stuttering, overtly electronic noises, he often samples the rest of the band and confronts them with their own sounds, which he twists into shapes and timbres that they are not physically capable of playing.
Early on, the band might halt when Kurzmann started playing, but on Trebuchet he’s a fully integrated agent of productive instability. He can go toe to toe in a passage of free improvisation, such as the debate between squiggles and rumbles that he and Stadhouders use to dial “Slipping Words against Silence” down into a series of intense duo exchanges. He can also contribute quietly in the background, functioning more like an instant sound designer than a fellow player. Or he can destabilize another musician’s playing by responding to them in their own distorted voice. Over the course of three tracks you’ll hear the other musicians absorb his playing into theirs, carry on despite it, or switch course in order to push back against it.
-Bill Meyer, “Dusted Magazine,” February 12, 2018
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