Reedsman Ken Vandermark is only two days back from a European tour with his LKV Trio project (with Paul Lytton a last-minute replacement for Hamid Drake in the usual DKV Trio), and he's ready to perform again with a completely different group for a CD release party in his hometown of Chicago. There aren't many musicians energetic enough to switch gears so quickly. Then again, not many musicians have been recognized for their accomplishments with a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship grant.
The new CD is Airports For Light (Atavistic) by the Vandermark 5, perhaps his most stable group from a list of projects that includes the DKV Trio, Joe Harriott Project, the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, the Sound in Action Trio, Free Music Ensemble and LLV Project (with percussionists Paul Lytton and Paul Lovens). The quintet plays regular gigs -- every Tuesday that Vandermark is in town -- at Chicago club The Empty Bottle, which Vandermark co-owns. "It's really worked out well, because we practice on Mondays, then on Tuesdays we get a chance to play out in front of an audience."
The workshop environment has seemingly helped the group's interaction rise to an ultra-intuitive, almost telepathic level, with all five members practically finishing each other's musical sentences. While all tracks on Airports are listed as Vandermark compositions, improvisation has always been primary and, as such, the solos here shine like gold. Trombonist Jeb Bishop, always a wonder to hear, plays off alto saxophonist Dave Remphis particularly well on the CD's opening track, "Cruz Campo." New drummer Tim Daisy's delicate drum and cymbal work stands out through the entire recording, particularly on "Staircase," as does Kent Kessler's brief but beautiful bass solo.
Vandermark's relationship with Kessler, a highlight of last year's Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised music, is particularly close. Of all his many collaborators, Kessler -- who just released a solo bass CD on Okka Disk -- is probably his most frequent and longstanding.
"We've been working together for about 11 years now on a really regular basis, and it's worked out really well," Vandermark says. "I mean, the two of us kind of came into our own simultaneously, in terms of developing as musicians. So we've had a lot of background and a lot of development happen concurrently in the ideas that we've been using as players. So it's been a great working relationship. There are definitely other bassists I work with -- both Americans like Nate McBride or people from Europe like Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten from Norway. I try to work with different kinds of people and different instrumentalists because it helps develop other aspects of my playing. But Kent and I definitely have a really important musical relationship -- to me anyway."
Unlike most musicians of his generation, who grew up in the rock era and discovered jazz later, Vandermark has been fed a steady diet of jazz for as long as he can remember.
"I came from a jazz background," Vandermark says. "Growing up, I heard a lot of jazz at home and my folks took me to hundreds and hundreds of concerts, probably, as a kid growing up. So I really came out of that, which makes me a little bit unusual in terms of the average person my age, who usually comes to jazz from rock."
Still, Vandermark has never been pulled by any sort of Wynton Marsalis-style jazz orthodoxy. He's always been open to collaborations and excursions into other music worlds. In fact, the Empty Bottle itself seems more like a rock club than your average art space or jazz club setting.
Given that, Vandermark and crew should feel right at home when they crank it up at The Earl in East Atlanta. Despite the trends in recent decades, jazz always feels the best in dark and smokey, booze-soaked clubs, where the music and spirits meld to form an ecstatic aesthetic. Of course, even if you're not drinking, the Vandermark 5 can create all the buzz needed for a memorable night of music.
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