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The Vandermark 5 - Beat Reader

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Artist: The Vandermark 5

Album: Beat Reader

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Feb. 13, 2008

Of the many ensembles he leads or plays in, Ken Vandermark’s most enduring and most highly regarded group his eponymous 5, which has on more than one occasion been called the finest working jazz group in the U.S. “Working” is the key word there – the group gigs regularly and it shows in their tightness and empathy. Now, well into its second decade, it is as full of ideas and vitality as ever, having evolved over that entire time, never standing still or spinning in a rut. Over the years, members have been replaced without affecting the group ethos; meanwhile, the introduction of new blood has repeatedly revitalized the sound and music.

Beat Reader, the group’s 13th LP for Atavistic Records, is no exception to this exceptional trend. The line-up is a holdover from 2006’s A Discontinuous Line, when cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm replaced founding member, trombonist and guitarist Jeb Bishop. Subbing out brass and guitar for a traditional classical voice is not an obvious move, but Longberg-Holm’s cello brings a sound that is both texturally distinctive and very adaptable. Whether acting as an accompanying drone element behind a saxophone solo on “Any Given Number,” providing high-frequency twittering on “Signposts,” or – most extraordinarily – hotwiring its strings for electronic mayhem at the close of “Speedplay,” the cello is a major influence on the group’s sound.

As ever with Vandermark, there are dedications aplenty; each of the eight tracks has a “For,” five to photographers (Vandermark did major in film) and three to musicians – György Ligeti, Paul Rutherford and Max Roach. Those three names alone give a sense of the eclecticism at the heart of Vandermark’s “jazz”; his compositions feature heads and hooks as catchy as any, but are full of unexpected twists and turns, as well as allowing plenty of freedom for blowing. The group’s longevity shows in the seeming ease with which they breathe life into the often abstract compositions, making them flow and swing.

“Speedplay (for Max Roach)” is aptly named. From the opening theme it drives along with irresistible momentum powered by a baritone solo from Vandermark that owes plenty to r’n’b barwalking; full of riffing, repetitions and call-and-response phrases, his solo sets the pulses racing before the baton is handed to Dave Rempis on alto, who only increases the intensity. After Lonberg-Holm’s cello freak-out, the piece ends in typically unpredictable style with a calm, soothing pastoral passage.

“Compass Shatters Magnet (for Paul Rutherford),” the longest track at 12 minutes, is both Beat Reader’s highlight and most typifying of the album’s diversity and passion. After an impressionistic percussion intro from Tim Daisy (who is imperious throughout), cello and clarinet duet on a beautifully mournful threnody, before bass and cello combine for a passage of free improvisation. This leads seamlessly into an upbeat riff and thence to a Vandermark solo that builds and builds in intensity before Rempis joins in for a stunning duet of interweaving lines that brings the piece to a blazing finale. Stunning stuff.

By John Eyles

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