The difference between the Vandermark 5's debut, Single Piece Flow, and its second album, Target or Flag, was unmistakable: the acclaimed sophomore effort had greater subtlety and compositional variety and made use of an expanded palette of colors. No such dramatic leaps are evident on the group's recent Simpatico (on Atavistic, like the first two), but that doesn't mean the band hasn't grown. Ken Vandermark seems to have put most of his energy into the arrangements: there's the usual mix of tender ballads ("Fact and Fiction" and "Anywhere Else"), postbop burners ("Full Deck," "Cover to Cover," "STHLM"), and more open-ended music ("Point Blank"), but the deft instrumentation brings new depth to familiar approaches. "STHLM," for example, opens with angular lockstep sax riffs that change when the rhythm section kicks in with an off-kilter funk groove. The piece pulls up short in front of a gnarled, note-crammed solo by Vandermark, then revs back up with a new half-time heavy funk feel as Vandermark's abstractions slowly fall into accord with the commanding rhythm, each segment germinating subtly in the previous one. The rest of the scrappy quintet--bassist Kent Kessler, drummer Tim Mulvenna, trombonist and guitarist Jeb Bishop, and alto saxophonist Dave Rempis--has rarely been used better: punchy counterriffing, propulsive but economical horn vamps behind the soloists, and dynamic variety are staples of the early records, but never have they been deployed with this much creativity, precision, and effectiveness. While I'd rather hear Bishop stick to trombone--his acidic electric-guitar freak-outs can seem like dutiful muscle flexing, recalling Vandermark's more bombastic moments in the NRG Ensemble--the addition of Rempis, who replaced Mars Williams in the group right after Target or Flag was cut, has turned out to be a bonus. Although he's significantly toughened his cool alto tone, which sounded downright tentative when he first joined, it's still airy enough to serve as a foil for Vandermark's more extroverted tendencies. The 5's fearless leader should be in especially fine form at this concert: earlier this week the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a "genius grant" in the amount of $265,000. To open the show, legendary Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee makes his first local appearance in over a year, duetting with drummer Hamid Drake. Friday, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.