Starting Tonight: A Ken Vandermark Mini Fest at the Velvet



Ken Vandermark
  • Ken Vandermark
Tonight at the Velvet Lounge, Ken Vandermark kicks off a mini fest to belatedly celebrate the release of three recordings by three different groups. This evening's concert is by the reedist's duo with drummer Tim Daisy (who'll also be behind the kit the other two nights), which recently put out the superb double LP Light on the Wall (Laurence Family). The sharp duo improvisations on the first LP ebb and flow with a natural-sounding ease, highlighting the rapport these guys have been developing for most of the past decade. That's not to say they're just coasting—you can hear them pushing and pulling along the way, as they shift gears from high-energy blowouts to the nice bar-walking blues groove of "The Empty Chair." You can listen to the album track "Landing" after the jump.

The second record of the set consists of solo pieces, one side per musician; Vandermark sticks exclusively with clarinet for the four-part "Etudes for Jimmy Giuffre," delivering austere meditations that explore the instrument's upper reaches as well as its midrange (the latter with long, hovering tones, often restrained and vibrato laden). Daisy's side consists of seven relatively short vignettes that focus on friction-derived color and texture rather than open-road rhythm.

On Friday night Vandermark leads his Frame Quartet (Daisy, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and bassist Nate McBride), and band that's been pretty scarce in these parts over the past six months or so—basically since they released their debut album, 35mm (Okka Disk). According to Vandermark's Web site he used a variety of procedures, many derived from cinema (crosscuts, fades, montages), to propel the improvisations on the record: "This has been done to redirect the improvising, shifting it away from the conventional development found in most contemporary music environments. All of the predetermined elements are interfaced with a variety of improvisational tactics; the pieces can be spontaneously reformatted at each performance. In a sense, the actual structure of the music is improvised by the band, and with systems that can't always be predicted by the members of the group."

In case you aren't totally sure what all that means—don't feel bad, I'm not either—what you need to know is that the quartet usually bypasses anything the casual listener would recognize as "jazz," instead borrowing heavier grooves from rock and abstract motion from film scores. Someone in the band conducts the action on every piece, and the music develops in unexpected, exciting ways. The last track on 35mm, "Straw (for Steve Lacy)," kind of reminds me of an early piece by Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, with a looped, wonderfully dissonant arco scrape by Lonberg-Holm giving it a manic insistence.

Finally, on Saturday night the Vandermark 5 reconvenes in support of its latest album, Annular Gift (Not Two)—the first live recording of its long career, cut in Krakow, Poland, at the Alchemia Club in March 2009. The episodic nature of some of the leader's compositions here keeps each performance rolling in new, surprising directions—the 20-minute opener, "Spiel (for Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill)," barrels through raucous, in-your-face amplified cello noise by Lonberg-Holm, scorching sax solos from Vandermark and Dave Rempis, a lengthy and restrained long-tone meditation, then more reed cries, more calm . . . well, you get the picture. Naturally there's plenty of extended improvisation, but Vandermark uses the written-out parts of his tunes not just to prod the soloists but to rejigger the context that surrounds them.

Photo: Peter Gannushkin /

Today's playlist:

Amerie, In Love & War (Def Jam)
Taksim Trio, Taksim Trio (Doublemoon)
Joe Morris, Simon H. Fell, and Alex Ward, The Necessary and the Possible (Victo)
Gilberto Gil & Jorge Ben, Gil e Jorge (Verve)
Various artists, Shadow Music of Thailand (Sublime Frequencies)

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