Group Chemistry 101
What to do when the windfall stops? That’s precisely the predicament facing Ken Vandermark these days. The annual cash flow from his Macarthur grant has dried up and with it the principal means of financing his numerous creative music ventures. The situation appears so pressing that he occupied the notes to his last large group release Map Theory openly theorizing solutions. The possibility of impending insolvency makes the appearance of Alchemia all the more improbable and extraordinary. A twelve disc box set documenting in full a five-night stand at the eponymous Polish jazz club seems the least viable venture for an artist swimming against the riptide of financial ruin.
I clearly remember Vandermark speaking from the stage at the 40 Watt Club on the opening night of the ACME Festival just over a year ago. He had the look of a man who hadn’t slept at any length in some time; beard scruff sprouting from cheeks and chin & puffy bags etched beneath each eye. Seemingly running on adrenalin fumes he addressed the audience with a synopsis of the Polish travels that had directly preceded the band’s touchdown in Athens, GA. The communicable enthusiasm underscoring his anecdotes fed directly into the excitement of the next three days. His bold claim that the stand at the Krakow club represented some of the best music the V5 had ever mustered stuck soundly in my skull.
Against considerable odds comes the complete musical corpus of that residency, ensconced in a package worthy of the contents. The set is deceptively compact in terms of tangibles. An evergreen-colored, canvas-covered box embossed with a photo of a budding flower houses the dozen discs, grouped in fours on heavy black cardboard placards. Underneath each disc lies a corresponding image: a cluster of pinecones here, a pile of safety-pins there, a clutch of juicy raspberries elsewhere. The rhyme or reason of the sequence remains a mystery. Lastly, there’s a Mosaic Records-style booklet, obviously printed on a frugal budget, containing a lengthy interview with Vandermark along with copious photos and annotations from the concerts.
Various critics and consumers alike have posited a neat chapter-style anatomy to the V5 songbook. There are the funk-conversant groove numbers that make use of tight in-the-pocket rhythms and slippery corresponding harmonies; the loose chamber jazz forays, full of connect-the-pointillistic-dots-transitions; the sober, noir-style ballads, and the full-bore filibuster jams that allow the players to pop the corks on their respective inhibitions. Overlap exists between these archetypes and the borders are highly porous, but for the most part the general schematics transfer from one album to the next. The same sort of planned variety regulates the concert sets at Alchemia. Each one occupies a single disc and unfolds with a guiding logic. The convenient organization allows for easy access to any given night of the tenancy. All told, 55 tracks covering 32 compositions represent eight different previous albums, with a top-heavy emphasis on the most recent three. In sum it’s a body of music that rivals the size of all the studio work that’s preceded it in the band’s nearly decade-long tenure together.
Trombonist Jeb Bishop and bassist Kent Kessler personify Vandermark’s old guard, both in place since the V5’s formation in the spring of 1996. Saxophonist Dave Rempis, who doubles throughout the set on tenor and alto, and drummer Tim Daisy are the relatively newer recruits, but each carries the badge of veteran when it comes attuning to the band aesthetic. Vandermark leads from a low key position, cycling through a reeds cache that includes: tenor and baritone saxophones, clarinet and bass clarinet. A fair share of repetition characterizes the cross-section of sets and nights. As with most collections of this magnitude the best strategy is to approach the whole as a divisible archive. The convenient indexing of each evening makes it possible for listeners to pull a set, or a night’s, worth of music from the shelf and digest the concert experience in whatever order they choose. It’s a luxury not available to the original club audiences and one that makes the daunting display of music more manageable if less visceral in mein.
The inaugural Monday night gig opens with the sprinting Ornette-style freebop of “Telefon.” Rempis’ alto mimics the streamlined acrobatics of a sidewinder missile while the leader’s tenor comes across more like small-arms fire via a barrage of staccato honks. Vandermark’s work on another version of the tune two nights later proves an even more impressive showing. There he surmounts errant static from a faulty mic to puts his horn through a punishing set of paces. The night’s second set cedes little energy and starts with a spirited version of “Outside Ticket” that veers off markedly from its studio version. Rempis reverts to the rear of the solo order, but still manages to usurp show-stealing honors. Day two commences with “Confluence,” a riotously swirling free-for-all that flies in the face of its conciliatory title and makes imposing use of Vandermark’s hulking baritone. And so it goes, each disc folding into the next and exposing an exhausting amount of music.
Sectional epics like “Other Cuts” show off the band’s swaggering side. A JB’s meets Julius Hemphill alloy, the tune pivots on a series of punchy rhythm vamps stamped by Daisy’s steady backbeat and Kessler’s finger-abrading ostinatos. Bishop works as elastic linchpin here, his lubricous slide work tapping essence of both Fred Wesley and Roswell Rudd in a most oily blend. Layered grooves also figure heavily into “Money Down,” a relentless burner dominated by Rempis’ racing, sparks-trailing tenor and the tightly-synched rhythm section. Bishop follows up the saxophonist with an unctuous solo punctuated by Vandermark’s riffing tenor and Daisy’s stomping syncopations to flesh out the first of two versions. The terse backbeat-buoyed “Roulette” and the Ragtimey bluster of “Knock Yourself Out” --the latter distinguished by more hard-bitten Vandermark baritone and Daisy copping his best funky drummer stance behind the kit-- both dip liberally from the same bag too. Thanks mostly to relatively uniform arrangements and steadfast metrical structures these selections don’t vary too much from one version to the next.
Ballad and chamber pieces represent another crucial contingent to the set lists. Rempis’ gauzy alto and a flexible harmonic anchor dropped by Kessler embellish the somber layered patterns on “Staircase,” daubing them with lyrical melancholy hues. “Gyllene” traffics in parallel territory as a feature for the tractable slant of Vandermark’s baritone. Daisy’s rolling mallets and Rempis’ roaming alto complement the leader beautifully. Referencing similar contemplative moods, “Long Term Fool” unfurls as a commodious canvas for Vandermark’s fluttery clarinet textures and Bishop’s lugubrious slide-enunciated commentary. “Both Sides” spoons out a strong dose of speakeasy blues. Here Daisy switches to pattering brushes and the horns opt for smoky, perambulating swing drawn from the venerable vein of the tune’s dedicatee, Texas tenor man Budd Johnson.
Other tracks emphasize a band propensity for split-personality juxtapositions. Through clever application of silence and space on the aptly-titled “Strata” Vandermark sunders rambunctious ensemble halves with the canyon of a capacious Daisy drum solo built on martial interlocking rhythms. “Cruz Campo,” another hydra-headed piece, starts out mapping tuneful boppish turf before blasting off with an extended spate of fire-breathing over a muscular pile-driving beat. Rempis demolishes the stops on the fifth night’s take of this tune, spraying multiphonics through his alto bell in spouts staved only by sudden drum-signaled breaks. “Six of One” sprawls over spans comparable to its commodious album version through two separate renderings. In these live concert cases the space occupied feels more justified, the thread connecting a chain of verbose solos, better defined and deployed. Even so, at over 22 minutes apiece, each still ends up a patience-testing venture. “Seven Plus Five” starts out as another representative of the chamber improv section of the songbook, before upending expectations with an opportunity for Vandermark to display his sizeable debt to mentor Peter Brötzmann in an outburst of hoary multiphonics.
Several compositions make their “world premiere” debuts. Among them, “Camera” arguably provides the most comprehensive example of the creative dynamic in play between the band and their surroundings. Though an ambitiously structured suite indexed by episodes of collective polyphony, it receives a less than perfect debut. The band’s shared cues are pensive in places and occasionally come at the cost of momentum and cohesion, but the individual solos weather the inconsistencies. Most compelling is the composition’s evolution over the next several nights, as it gradually develops from protean to more finished forms. “That Was Now,” a dime-turning piebald burner that hinges florid improvisations on interludes of relative calm, solidifies under similar real-time experimentation. The processural approach of these pieces points to exactly what Vandermark’s talking about when he refers to the Alchemia experience as a Petrie dish for creative germination. Minus the worries and rigors packing their belongings up and schlepping them grueling road miles enroute to yet another tour stop, the five friends are able to focus their energies on hatching and working up new material in front of the responsive sounding board of a fluctuating live audience.
In addition to selections born from Vandermark’s fertile pen, the band also embraces entries borrowed from more influential antecedents. Over the first two nights covers largely cull from Roland Kirk songbook. Kirk’s fluid heads and playful hardbop trappings fit the V5 fingers-in-glove, but the resulting renditions are hardly revolutionary. The band treats the tunes more like fakebook entries, fodder for sliver-tongued solos rather than sources for radical retoolings. Rempis’ fulminating rundown of “Three for the Festival,” Vandermark’s own extemporization on “A Handful of Fives,” and Bishop’s dramatic tailgate solos on two takes of the loping funeral march “The Black and Crazy Blues” cement the preference for hard direct blowing over risky structural revision. An enterprising investigation of Archie Shepp’s “Wherever June Bugs Go” proves a welcome exception to these observations, rife as it is with clever instrument switches and cunning expanded harmonies. Other Kirkian territory receives coverage later in the week with faithful, if slightly tepid interpretations of “Silverization” and “Volunteered Slavery” melded together as a funky blues-pregnant medley. Also on the docket are seminal compositions by Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, and Cecil Taylor. Not coincidentally most of these studious, cherry-picked choices overlap with the band’s controversial Free Jazz Classics projects on Atavistic. The V5 is at its core an unrepentant repertory band, one that draws on its own developing songbook while keeping ears well attuned to past forefathers who set the stylistic stage from which they expound.
The set finishes off with a series of entertaining afternoon “free jams.” These tracks originate from the third and fourth days of the residency and occupy the final two discs. Vandermark officiates the string of impromptu combinations, inviting bassist Marcin Ole? (who also doubles on what sounds like melodica) and drummer Bart?omiej Brat Ole?, a pair of Polish players, onstage as guests. While lacking some of the congruity and polish of the more formal band numbers of past nights, these on-the-fly excursions close the gap with plenty of shared charisma and brio. Daisy, Kessler and Rempis sit out for the first two improvs leaving a quartet of Vandermark, Bishop and the defacto local rhythm section to their own devices. The Olés seem a bit tentative at first -Bart?omiej in particular sounds slightly stiff in spots, falling back on stock patterns and stuttering snare- but the duo still calibrate swiftly to the vernacular of their American colleagues. Other match-ups include a quartet with both bassists minus Bishop and Rempis, and a quintet configuration where Kessler and Bart?omiej retire to the sidelines. A quartet of Vandermark, Rempis, Kessler and Daisy rallies an ad-lib vamp-driven blues “Theme for Alchemia,” paying sincere respects to the venue proper. Also in the mix are more covers, most ambitious among them 23-minute work-up of Ornette Coleman’s “Round Trip” and a clever dust-off of Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” both by the V5 reconstituted.
One of the most striking and instructive aspects of Alchemia is the degree to which it boldly and protractedly delineates the differences between Vandermark and his right hand man Rempis. Their adjacent solos on the second rendering of “Pieces of the Past,” last in the trio of debut pieces, from the fifth night strikingly evince the different approaches. Rempis is a near consummate technician, sure-fingered and audacious in his register-skating barrages of notes. His explosive improvisations never cede footing, retaining an inner logic and tonal integrity no matter how “out” his phrases venture and even at blinding speed. Vandermark alights from a contrastive perch, frequently favoring emotion and impact over dexterity and prowess. His lines reel out with ragged edges and often little regard toward coloring within consistent tonal constraints, but the force he can summon on his reeds counterweights the liberties taken in the area of expertise. These are subjective generalizations, but the disparity has long been the topic of conjecture and conversation. Vandermark even self-effacingly admits to his subordinate chops in the accompanying booklet. The upshot comes with how well the pair is able to dovetail with each other both solo and in tandem.
Arguments about Vandermark’s talent and positioning are nothing new. Parallels of the picayunish fracas surrounding his MacArthur Fellowship back in 1999 are almost certain to surface in the shadow of the Alchemia’s release. I can hear the same naysayers echoing arguments similar to those voiced then, each grousing about the crowd of other musicians better deserving of such lavish box set treatment. Such spitting into the wind seems both petty and childish. By my lights Vandermark advanced to his present position by virtue of a sizeable expenditure of toil and gumption. Sure, luck had something to do with it, but a silver spoon isn’t a luxury accorded the jazzman. The mantle of “hardest working man in free jazz” isn’t some flippant joke and the moxie and earnestness behind this project seems to me to bear out Vandermark’s storied industry. He calls the set a “warts and all” representation. That’s a savvy, self-reflective summation. It certainly fits the bill as a career milestone and a package offering an encyclopedic survey of the band’s creative processes in real-time.
Is it worth steep the asking price? In light of all that’s included and the obvious amount of risk and elbow grease that went into the venture it’s difficult to argue against an answer in the affirmative. Not necessarily for neophytes, most of whom would probably be better served by seeking out single albums from the band’s back catalog as entry points, folks familiar and enamored with the V5 will find much to ponder and take pleasure in, secure in the assurance of shekels well spent.
By Derek Taylor