The Vandermark Five Special Edition The Horse Jumps and The Ship is Gone

[Not Two; 2010]

Styles: creative improv, modern jazz, avant-garde
Others: The Thing, Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Atomic, Free Fall

Jazz and improvised music have become a haven for projects rather than bands. Artists convene to make records and perhaps tour a bit, but the notion of a long-running outfit has become quite rare. There are certainly exceptions, but the idea of first-time meetings and the antithesis of codification have seemingly become part of the spirit of how the music is actualized. Of course, longevity even among the most famous postwar jazz groups is not really that common; saxophonist and improvising composer Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet with trumpeter Don Cherry, either Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums, and a rotating cast of bassists starting with Charlie Haden only lasted about three years (1958-1961). The classic John Coltrane quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones was formed in 1961 and disbanded (with the exception of Garrison) in 1965. Then there are the more long-running engagements like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which despite changes in personnel due to the deaths of founding members, trumpeter Lester Bowie and bassist Malachi Favors Maghostut, has somehow continued on (even if a shadow of its former self) for over 40 years.

A reedman who has his hands in many different project pots, Chicagoan Ken Vandermark also led or co-led the Vandermark 5 from 1994 until the close of 2010, and though there were a few lineup changes over the years — a rotation of drummers, the departures of saxophonist Mars Williams and trombonist Jeb Bishop necessitating replacements — there was always a sense of steadiness to the group’s recorded conception, even as their initial punk-jazz salvos were reined in to a classically modern and keenly arranged approach to avant-garde jazz. Over 15 years, the V5 recorded mostly for vanguard Chicago label Atavistic, though one of their most significant documents — a 12-disc boxed set documenting their stand at Krakow’s Alchemia in 2005 — was released by Polish jazz label Not Two. To release a 2009 special edition of the V5 recorded at Chicago’s venerable Green Mill jazz club with Norwegian guests Magnus Broo (trumpet) and Håvard Wiik (piano), Vandermark returned to Not Two, and the result is the band’s swan song, a two-disc set entitled The Horse Jumps and The Ship is Gone. Wiik and Broo are nods to some of Vandermark’s other fruitful ensembles; the pianist is also a member of Free Fall, a trio with bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten exploring and advancing on the inventions of the early 1960s Jimmy Giuffre 3, while the trumpeter has worked alongside Vandermark in projects like Atomic/School Days, The Resonance Ensemble, and 4 Corners. Rounding out the group are saxophonist Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Kent Kessler (the only original member other than Vandermark), and drummer Tim Daisy.

The first disc starts out with “Friction,” from 2009’s Beat Reader (Atavistic), a knottily measured theme out of tempo with droning string backing that, with Wiik’s chords placed as they are at ambiguously odd intervals, shows a kinship with the work of pianist-composer Andrew Hill. Broo is the first soloist out of the gate, with crumpled and incisive whines out of the Don Cherry/Donald Ayler school albeit with an electrified thinness that cuts through and above the ensemble in a different way. Daisy and Kessler keep the pace at a dry clip, a frantic anchor of rhythm and harmony that leads into Wiik’s tumbling mobiles, an interlude of chunky hues that resists explosiveness, and is mirrored by a circular working-through of the toms. A fast waltz and slowly-rising floes offer support to Rempis’ searing alto, molding phrases into curling hard-bitten dances, crisp like the AEC’s Roscoe Mitchell but much less “sectional,” while the leader digs in his tenor heels to close the piece out.

“Some Not All,” from 2006’s A Discontinuous Line, follows, and it jovially brings out what a texturally interesting ensemble this is, fleet percussion meeting arco cello skitter, ringing piano chords, and husky baritone as Lonberg-Holm solos, then sliding into a backbeat-heavy rock tune as the cellist clicks in for lacquered distortion and a bright collective improvisation. Wiik’s cascades tease a bit of Red Garland before becoming pointillist and atonal; in some ways comparable to Archie Shepp’s piano playing, it’s about as disjointed here, but more liquid. The tune closes with hot peals of baritone madness brushed up against detailed stabs of piano and cello. This is, after all, a far less blustery V5 than a decade or so ago; with the addition of piano and cello to the mix (although only the latter is regular), there’s a sense of poise and élan to the group improvisations, squared off by unison horn lines and earthy rhythms that at times seem somewhere out of the Clarke-Boland bag (especially on the folksy minefield of Broo’s “New Weather”).

After Bishop left the group in 2005, it could have folded, but bringing Lonberg-Holm into the picture was an interesting coup; deft pizzicato approximates guitar intricacy plugged-in and effects-laden, his instrument beating a raucous energy out of its hull. There’s a parallel between Bishop’s adeptness at both slick post-bop lines and tailgate bravura and the classical/noise dichotomy that is at the heart of Lonberg-Holm’s language. But that brassy energy was part of the group and its absence was definitely notable. Broo is a crackling player and, although integrated into the proceedings, he’s not as constantly present, ricocheting off of Wiik’s insinuating lines on the tautly boppish “Second Marker” and its cross between East European folk music and British orchestral jazz (Graham Collier; Kenny Wheeler).

Speaking of Kenny Wheeler, Wiik’s composition “Green Mill Tilter” (a reference to Wheeler’s 1968 Fontana LP Windmill Tilter) opens the second disc moving through a blur of knots in its theme, before a muted Broo steps out with the support of Lonberg-Holm’s electronics and a sinister, metronomic vamp. Minus the wavering dials, one might be reminded of trumpeter Alan Shorter’s work with bassist Reggie Johnson and drummer Rashied Ali on the 1968 Verve recording Orgasm. Once Wiik enters, things become spry postbop, a bright head-bobbing tug underpinned by supple, mildly slick horn riffs that give a clear reference point for the pianist’s florid, eddying clang. In the final moments, baritone and rhythm slug it out as a lilting sub-theme for tenor, trumpet, and piano slides through arranged keyholes, hot skronk curiously melded with clean arrangements. Though “Desireless” isn’t necessarily to be equated with the Don Cherry composition of the same name, Broo’s cracking rhythmic fluffs and keening upturned cries recall the pocket trumpeter at his finest, unspooling crumpled brass over sawing cello and chattering kinetics. Angular prog-rock symphonics gird Vandermark’s gutbucket tenor solo, ebullient brimstone followed by baritone multiphonics and warped electric cello; one would nearly expect the proceedings to erupt into a “Machine Gun”-like blues riff with the chord that Rempis hits, but the improvisation peters out into outlined scrapes instead.

What emerges in this two-disc swan song to the Vandermark Five’s decade and a half of steady work and evolution is that, despite the reedman’s name front and center and the prevalence of his compositional approach, this is a cooperative endeavor. His tenor playing, while powerful and informed, is one of five (or seven, in this case) main colors that populate the music. Over the years as a player, he’s gotten considerably more democratic, hanging back to allow the music to take shape organically. With an even larger group than normal, the sometimes “obvious” nods to rock rhythmic structure are given more flesh and are relational to the weight they have to carry. Thinking beyond this as the last Vandermark Five record for a moment, The Horse Jumps and The Ship is Gone is also a fine slice of Euro-American creative music opening the decade, offering up powerful individual and collective statements from seven of music’s dedicated practitioners. The jazz world will continue to hear from these players for years to come, but, as always, it’s nice to have them “all in the same room” for a spell.

Links: The Vandermark Five Special Edition - Not Two

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