By Paul Acquaro
I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to follow the typically adventurous path of Ken Vandermark and Peter Brotzmann through a handful of new recordings (though I begin with one by the duo of free jazz heavyweights Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love). I admit that on the surface these albums are only losely connected by some of the musicians involved, however, I feel that somehow they are more tacitly connected by a certain uncompromising musical vision...
Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen Love - Letter to a Stranger (Smalltown Superjazz, 2011) ****
Starting out with a wash of percussion and the softer sounds of the A clarinet the duo of percussionist Nilssen-Love and reedist Vandermark quickly builds in focus and intensity. Nilssen-Love's panapoly of percussion helps generate a strong foundation for Vandermark's confident and commanding tone. The slow build of the first tune leads into the intense title track where the duo makes a racket akin to a full band, leaving no sonic stone unturned. I was particularly drawn to the disjointed phrasing in 'Cat in the water'. The dyad's crazy conversation jumps from phrase to phrase, with lines spilling from the A and bass clarinets that do not seem possible for mortals to make. Whether skirting the conventional sounds of the instruments or embracing the unintentional ones, this is absorbing collage of interactions and phrasing. The amount of sound and range that this duo covers is utterly compelling.
Sonore - Oto (Trost Records, 2011) ****
Here Vandermark is joined by woodwind masters Peter Brotzmann and Mats Gustafsson, whose ongoing project Sonore yields a whole other set of actions and reactions. The trio, now several years into their collaboration, deliver a rousing set at London's Oto jazz club. With all three musicians in fine form, the free blowing set is replete with sonic drubbings and surprisingly tender moments. Unfettered or supported by a rhythm section of any kind, there is a lack of foundation that makes the music challenging and evocative. The amount of listening and empathy for each other's playing is impressive, I image each instrument to be a rotating gear that works together mysteriously to bring a machine to life. For example the enigmatically titled "(I was arranging her) arms" features the deeper registers of a baritone sax (I assume) laying a crumbling foundation beneath the swirling of a clarinet, while small fluttering blasts from a third woodwind provides a pulse. The musicians are not shy about pushing their instruments to their technical limits, nor have any reservations about creating some beautiful passages as well.
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Full Blast & Friends - Sketches and Ballads (Trost Records, 2011) ****1/2
Full Blast & Friends finds Vandermark, trumpeter Thomas Heberer, and timpanist Dirk Rothbrust joining regular Full Blast trio members Brotzmann, bassist Marino Pliakas, and drummer Michael Wertmuller. The expanded group delivers an captivating piece credited to Wertmuller. Rendered as one long tune, though overall album clocks in on the more succinct side at 38 minutes, the group fill every precious minute with telepathic connections, captivating blasts of atonal power and moments of sublime sound. Full on chaotic blasts are contrasted with beautiful solo and duo passages that fully exploit the tonal possibilities of the horns, a quick bass break about 5 minutes into the piece generates powerful sonic propulsion, and the timpani adds a fascinating and dynamic dimension. The song is a complex and varied piece that deserves many listens.
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While it was fun to will into existence a theme running through all of these recordings, it is even more fun to just listen. Whether it is the intense crescendo of Vandermark's and Nilssen-Love's 'Crippled Donkey', a moment of a quiet with Sonore exchanging ideas, or a blazing passage from Full Blast, this is a set of recordings that I highly recommend for hearty musical adventurers.