“By one-sidedly emphasizing only one aspect of the new, Brotzmann transforms the music into a kind of still life, reducing it to a style without concomitant creative substance.”
- Amiri Baraka, review of Nipples in Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music
I don’t necessarily agree with the above sentiment but I’ve heard similar things about both the Euro improvisers (Brotzmann, Gustafsson, Bailey, Bennink) and the Chicago crowd exemplified by Fred Vandermark, that what you get is a frozen-moment perspective of the fire music of the ‘60s, unmoored from the gospel and R&B underpinnings that someone like Ayler had so it looks like action painting. But I stand in front of those Rothkos at MoMA and every time I hold back tears, and Vandermark was my big gateway into free jazz. Really, my gateway was John Corbett’s Extended Play that came out my freshman year in high school, and it’s an easy step to Ken Vandermark from there.
The first live shot of the juice I love in freer improvised music came from the sets of shows Zach Bodish booked in the much-missed rock club Little Brother’s and it was 2000 when both DKV and Vandermark 5 came to Little Brother’s on separate occasions in one of these series. The first time I’d seen un-amplified, not even through a PA, music I think, though I’m a little ashamed to admit it took me until I was 20. And at the time I was just blown away by the interplay. But slowly I drifted away from Vandermark and when I heard he was coming back to the Wexner Center almost a decade later, there was no chance I wasn’t going to go but I was a little nervous that I’d be let down.
And I’m happy to say that was completely unfounded. In the years I haven’t been keeping up, Ken Vandermark’s tone has gotten even more assured and the melodies he’s writing are killer, while the band has gotten even more groove-based. From the opening “Friction” to the closing “Cadmium Red (For Francis Bacon)” I was enraptured. I would’ve liked a few more songs that varied from head-solo-solo-bridge-head (or thereabouts) but the tunes where he deviated from that, “Spiel” with its interlocking sections glued together by Fred Longberg-Holm’s distorted cello, or the gorgeous ballad “Early Color” propelled by Dave Rempis’s sax, were astonishing.
Every memory gets me back to the sheer physical force of the rhythms they churned out, Kent Kessler on bass and Fred Longberg-Holm on cello often both playing pizzicato to create one seamless giant rhythm below everything, or both playing arco to give it a chamber music kick and expanse and Tim Daisy’s drums stop the music short in the most interesting ways when they’re not bringing different, almost orchestral colors out to the fore. I’m glad the Wex is bringing this kind of thing to Columbus, and I intend not to let it be another 9 years before I see the Vandermark 5.