Marker “Wired For Sound”, Dusted Magazine
March 19, 2018
In any given year, Ken Vandermark has more bands going than some other people have in a career. Lately some of his most rewarding recordings have come from small combos, and you can add Wired For Sound, the debut CD by Marker, to the list. Marker is a quintet that comprises Vandermark playing his full compliment of clarinets and saxophones plus four Chicago-based musicians — Macie Stewart on electric keyboard and violin, Phil Sudderberg on drums, and Andrew Clinkman and Steve Marquette on electric guitars.
This is the first time that Vandermark has put together a sustained, touring ensemble in which everyone is two or three decades younger than he is. The potential benefits of such a move include opportunities to learn from people who grew up on different sounds than he has and to guide players still willing to learn to learn his approach. Both factors may contribute to Marker sounding different from any previous Vandermark project. The music references an array of antecedents — Misha Mengelberg, Captain Beefheart, Funkadelic and The Ex all come to mind, but I’m sure there’s plenty more — that blend more richly in part because a guy who has been soaking in music for four decades is writing for four people young enough to have had the internet factor into how they learn about music. No one’s growing up on 20 LPs and the radio anymore.
The mechanisms driving Marker’s mix of composition and improvisation are pretty complex. The tunes include conventionally scored material, sections of activity that hang either in front of or behind standout components like a semi-transparent projective surface and passages where written instructions like game rules can be triggered by one or more players. It takes time to not just learn but internalize such dynamics, and it would be hard for Vandermark to obtain the necessary levels of commitment and authority in a band of his peers. Marker’s younger members are up for the challenge. They not only execute the tunes and grooves with doggedness and precision, they shift in and out of the more loosely determined passages with fluid grace.
The most familiar thing about this music is often Vandermark’s playing; his saxophone tone is imbued with an appreciation for mid-20th century bar-walkers and free blowers, and his clarinet playing more frankly abstract and lacerating. But the rest of his sonic toolkit is different. Previously he’s built the sound of his electric combos from the bottom up, using heavy hitting and a big bass presence to give the music heft. Marker’s frequency distribution leaves a lot of space where the bass might be, which makes it easier to perceive the intricate interactions between the instrumentalists. The fluency of their interplay is a collective accomplishment, but Stewart’s contributions stand out. Her keyboard, usually set to sound like a distorted electric piano, is not a sound that Vandermark has used before, and it enables him to channel a set of 1970s-associated sounds that he hasn’t touched before. Her violin, on the other hand, takes you back to the Vandermark Quartet and later editions of the Vandermark 5, which both featured prominent string sounds.
Vandermark’s music is a moving target. Wired For Sound was recorded in September 2017, and since then the group has toured the Southern USA. If their final Chicago date, which occurred a couple weeks after that tour, is any indication, they’ve grown more fearless and forceful. Here’s hoping that this band stays together for a spell; it’d be great to hear what comes next.”
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