Jazz groups reaching for that ecstatic transcendence may not fall into two easily definable camps, but a lot of them fall between two poles. One extreme, let's arbitrarily call it the right, is the modal-groove-as-mantra approach of Coltrane's "A Love Supreme." In the middle is a sort of hyper-energized take on traditional forms folk tunes to Tin Pan Alley to bop. And at the left pole, the artists approximate the feel of an action painting in both the soloing and composed sections, in the best case leaving the listener guessing which is which; it's an approach pioneered by the Art Ensemble of Chicago among others in the '70s and taken to welcomed extremes since.
With his Vandermark 5, reedman-composer Ken Vandermark has now spent a decade excitably wailing the left of that middle ground to the action-painting extreme. And on the group's latest disc the first studio sessions with cellist Fred Longberg-Holm in the lineup it's as if each composition stakes out a different segment on that continuum.
Among his other fascinations, Vandermark is keen to explore the combinatoric possibilities of five musicians, each with a large palette of capabilities and, in the case of himself and fellow reedman David Rempis, multiple axes (they play five different reeds from clarinet to baritone sax between them). Take "Some Not All (For Phillip Wilson)," the longest piece and arguably the centerpiece. A somber, reflective group statement that suggests chamber music as much as any derivation of jazz segues to a pumping baritone riff under a more aggressive counterpoint theme, which lightens up with the opening of a cello solo that builds and burns with the return, before long, of the riffing baritone and a full-band theme again. About three minutes in, the music is being driven by a new cello riff that sounds like some twisted descendant of Abdul Wadud's work 30-plus years ago on the underground classic Dogon A.D. The remaining 10 minutes include screaming alto against shifting instrumental backgrounds, an alto-cello-drum trio section, bass and cello against a drum solo, and a baritone solo (from Vandermark) during which any sense of time and meter dissolves. It all builds back to a climax that doesn't involve returning to the theme (at least not in any immediately recognizable guise). "Some Not All" is neither a prototype for all the other pieces here nor an inventory of the effects included. There are evocations of bop noir and West Coast post-cool here, and more abstract excursions but never fear, no ballads or Tin Pan Alley standards.
Last year, when he brought this group to town, Vandermark told us that they'd seriously considered throwing in the towel when the band's longtime trombonist, Jeb Bishop, decided to call it quits. It was either that or make a significant departure, which they eventually did by swapping a third horn player for a second string man of Longberg-Holm's proclivities. With Longberg-Holm, the 5 can move both in the direction of chamber music and rock harder. They made the case for that at the Detroit debut of the new lineup at the State Bar early last year, and the case is even stronger on the new disc.
Thursday, Feb 8, at Bohemian National Home, 3009 Tillman St., Detroit; 313-737-6606. Doors at 8 pm; $15 donation.
W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].