Made To Break, the Chicago jazz ensemble led by reed player, composer and MacArthur Fellowship (or “Genius Grant”) winner Ken Vandermark, kicked off its North American tour at the Burdock Thursday in front of a sold-out crowd.
Toronto has traditionally been good to the prolific Vandermark; last time he came to town, he performed with local avant-garde institutions John Oswald and Michael Snow (in fact, tonight’s show was dedicated to the latter), and the pre-show crowd chatter was filled with in-the-know jazz enthusiasts eagerly educating their junior scene-peers about what was about to unfold.
The show began with a solo set from local trumpeter Nicole Rampersaud, who blew fitful runs of cascading melody augmented by vigorous muting action, alternately burnishing and dulling the trumpet’s sonority to wring as much tonal range as possible from the instrument. At times, she stopped blowing altogether and simply shook the trumpet violently, the rattling of its slides and valves ringing out frantically in the hushed room.
It must be noted that the Burdock is an incredible-sounding room, and that Rampersaud’s delicate playing hung in the air with exquisite clarity and definition. This was not lost on Vandermark and his ensemble, who shouted out Burdock house tech Amy Fort before launching into an hour-plus set of deep funk vamping and heart-racing, go-for-broke descents into meltdown mode.
Vandermark’s full-bodied playing and Christof Kurzmann’s soupy electronic loops invigorated a seemingly inexhaustible pile of monster funk riffs that sounded reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi-era ensemble, unwaveringly propelled by the dynamic rhythm section of Jasper Stadhouders and Tim Daisy. At various moments, Vandermark’s charts would cue someone to pull the rug out on all the grooving, inciting a house-of-cards collapse into a furious mushroom cloud of sonic chaos, and then fearsomely regrouping into an intense, single-minded unit just as all semblance of organization seemed about to slip away.
The formal approach of post-free jazzers like Made To Break (and other recent high-profile players like Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington) is not necessarily novel, but the way in which it is deployed to explore an ever-expanding range of textures, as opposed to the more melody-and-harmony-based experiments of their forebears, continues to hold out new promise and new territory for mapping.
The most transcendent moments felt both novel and ephemeral in this way: Rampersaud trying to shake her trumpet into pieces, Daisy’s pile of found-object percussion, Stadhouders’ thumping, atonal tree-chopping bass solo, Kurzmann’s literally limitless sample-and-loop array, and – more than his formidable composition and performance chops – Vandermark’s room-filling, spectrum-cramming, mountain-moving tonal presence.
By Mark Streeter
Originally published April 1st at https://nowtoronto.com/music/concert-reviews/made-to-break-review/
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