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Ken Vandermark's Free Fall - Furnace

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Artist: Ken Vandermark's Free Fall

Album: Furnace

Label: Wobbly Rail

Review date: Jan. 9, 2004

A friendly rivalry exists between New York and Chicago free jazz camps. As the two chief epicenters for the music in the United States, each is distinct and to a degree autonomous. But any bad blood between them is largely a media creation. Where the Windy City arguably has a slight edge is in the number of transnational partnerships that arise there on a regular basis. Ken Vandermark, the man principally responsible for this fertile pooling of American and European talent, continues to find success in forging these bonds. William Parker and others in the Big Apple have longer track records of cultivating such connections, though not with the proactive consistency Vandermark seems to possess.

Vandermark’s bands – at current count there are at least a dozen – regularly contain players of numerous nationalities and musical backgrounds. Free Fall, one of his latest divinations, is a trio coupling his clarinets with the Norwegians Swede Hårvard Wiik on piano and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on double bass. He makes it explicitly clear in his accompanying notes to Furnace that the trio is not intended to be a Jimmy Giuffre tribute band, but the instrumentation and approach belie a strong influence just the same. The disc’s seven pieces map a terrain quite similar to Giuffre’s quietly monumental trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow. Free counterpoint and an egalitarian approach to melody regularly enter their compositional equations.

The album title is a curious misnomer. The chamber instrumentation and approach rarely generate heat or sparks in a traditional sense of hard, impassioned blowing. This was, in fact, one of Giuffre’s crucial contributions to improvised music – the assertion that music need not be loud or busy in order to convey excitement and even swing. Vandermark’s clarinet affects a ruminative demeanor akin to Giuffre’s sometimes melancholic, in other instances bucolic. But there are also sections of terpsichorean animation as his reed flutters and cavorts around the harmonic obstacles set up by his colleagues, as on the knotty title track. Flaten’s thrumming patterns on the opener “Inside Out,” written in homage to Bley, keep while Wiik’s cascading runs reflect the gravity-defying properties of the trio’s name. Vandermark oscillates and suspirates in between, loosing bent porous lines that bounce and careen through his clarinet’s upper register.

A handful of other pieces carry on Vandermark’s predilection for conveying esteem to his influences. Merce Cunningham, author Frank O’Hara, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans are the recipients this time round. Wiik also contributes three compositions, Flaten one, indication again of the trio’s erstwhile leaderlessness. Running time is relatively short, but the end results hardly seem larcenous. In fact, the album’s brevity fits appealingly with the program of music. As is always the case with Vandermark, the longevity of this particular project is open to speculation. But with such a thought-provoking debut it’s a band that will hopefully have a long studio and performance lifespan.

By Derek Taylor

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