The Vandermark 5 is reedman and composer Ken Vandermark's best-known group, out of well over 30 different bands he's involved in.
The Vandermark 5 is reedman and composer Ken Vandermark's best-known group, out of well over 30 different bands he's involved in. Joel Wanek
My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week — or at least as often as possible — she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.
My recent travels to Chicago, for the Chicago Jazz Festival, didn't bring me in contact with that city's out-jazz totem Ken Vandermark — he was off touring Europe at that point in time. But I did see his most popular band at the Newport Jazz Festival, where I was reminded of a theory I've had for a while: because of its compositional inclinations, its raucous grooves and its general musicality, the Vandermark 5 is the perfect ensemble with which to introduce people to contemporary free jazz. Knowing full well that the Boss Lady's tastes don't necessarily align with all of Vandermark's, I nonetheless decided to test this assumption on her.
"Speedplay (For Max Roach)," from Vandermark 5, Beat Reader (Atavistic). Ken Vandermark, baritone saxophone/clarinet; Dave Rempis, alto saxophone; Fred Lonberg-Holm, cello; Kent Kessler, bass; Tim Daisy, drums. Chicago, Ill.: Dec. 19-20, 2006.
Purchase: Amazon.com / Amazon MP3 / iTunes / Atavistic Records
Boss Lady: Those are some "in your face" horns!
me: Sure thing. Big, loud, and powerful.
Boss Lady: Yes. I'm thinking the intent is not to be beautiful, but to wail.
me: Well, I would say that this group is plenty capable of slow, pretty music. But that's not the goal here, really.
Boss Lady: I feel like I'm eavesdropping on a passionate, red-faced, indignant interchange.
me: What instruments do you hear?
Boss Lady: Well, I thought it was mostly winds and drums, but now I'm hearing one of the wildest, most hard-driving electric guitar solo I've heard in a long time.
me: Ah, you're near the end of the track. Well, you wouldn't think it, but that's actually an amplified cello.
If you go back to the first solo, it sort of sounds like a low guitar strumming in the background, but when the cellist (Fred Lonberg-Holm) solos, it's a wild, bowed skronk.
Boss Lady: Wow. Then it just dies down and the piece kind of fades away. I feel like I've just been wrung out like a washcloth. Catharsis!
me: Yea. It has structure, right?
Do you hear any structure to the piece?
Boss Lady: You mean the main theme comes back a few times and there's other stuff in between?
me: Sure. The classical music fan might call it a rondo form or even ritornello: that little passage keeps coming back, but somewhat differently every time.
Boss Lady: OK I'll listen back
me: Like, at the beginning, right? That whole first 44 seconds or so is all written.
Boss Lady: Then it starts to swing after that. That's when the bass and drum take off. It's tight and then it lets loose.
me: It does swing, right? You hear the drummer play that ride cymbal and the bass start that four-beat walking "dum-dum-dum-dum" pattern. And the cello is acting sort of like a guitar, strumming out chords here and there.
How would you describe the saxophone solo?
Boss Lady: Raunchy.
me: I like that. But why raunchy?
Boss Lady: A lot of blaring, digging in, bending notes, almost splatting. Is he using a mute?
me: Not that I know of. Just lots of low overblowing and such. It's also a baritone saxophone, so it's naturally lower-pitched.
Boss Lady: Let's just say nobody's shy in this band.
me: But it's not exactly tonal right? The band is playing this driving rhythm, but his note choices don't exactly fit — yet he's in sync with them somehow. Would you agree?
(That's the bandleader and composer Ken Vandermark, by the way.)
Boss Lady: I guess I don't think of it that way. When I hear a solo, I hear a personality jump out, and in this case it's on edge and strutting.
me: Fair enough. So then that little ritornello/theme returns, and we get a new section — and a new solo.
How does this one differ from the first?
Boss Lady: Well, let me find my place, oh teacher with a lesson plan.
me: Around 3:25, dear wayward student.
Boss Lady: A saxophone with chops ratcheting himself up into a wild frenzy. We're entering cacophony ...
me: A higher-pitched saxophone, no?
Boss Lady: Sure. Are you going to continue leading me by the nose?
me: As long as you keep smelling
Boss Lady: And then we have that Hendrix-like electric cello solo ... and then quiet and calm return to the universe. I guess it's good stress relief once it's over.
me: You could put it that way. Wasn't so bad, was it?
Boss Lady: Now honestly, Patrick, if I had put this in my CD player at home I probably would have turned it off right away.
But I appreciate having gone through it with you. Now that I "get it" better, I can see its merits. It's just that I'm not used to inviting aggressive people into my house.
me: Well, aggressivity is part of jazz sometimes.
Boss Lady: Also, while I would naturally shy away from this, I do appreciate the catharsis — the clearing of the air at the end.
Is aggressivity a word?
me: Aggression, whatever.
Boss Lady: I just don't tolerate aggressivity in my employees, so don't get any ideas.
me: The thing I want to get through is that OK, sure, this is some loud, noisy music. You could call it "free jazz" if you like. But it has structure. Dudes didn't just show up to the studio to blow as loud and crazy as they could — they planned out ways to do so.
Boss Lady: I appreciate that. Thanks for opening — and cleaning out — my ears.
me: Lead you by the nose, clean out your cochlea