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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Audio One - What Thomas Bernhard Saw (Audiographic, 2015) ****½

By Eyal Hareuveni

Audio One is a continuation of Ken Vandermark's work with large groups, beginning with the now defunct Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet and his own Territory Band (in its different incarnations) and the still active Europe based Resonance Ensemble. The 10 piece Audio One is a Chicago-based ensemble featuring long-term musical partners of Vandermark - trombonist Jeb Bishop, sax player Dave Rempis, and drummer Tim Daisy (all three played in the Vandermark 5), reeds player Mars Williams (who played in Chicago Tentet and plays with Vandermark in Rempis’ Chicago Reeds Quartet), alto sax player Nick Mazzarella (who also plays in the Chicago Reed quartet), vibes player Jason Adasiewicz (who played on Vandermark’s Impressions of PO Music, Okka Disk, 2013) and bass player Nick Macri and viola player Jen Paulson (who play with Vandermark in The Margots).

This local ensemble allows Vandermark to work on a regular basis, rehearsing, performing, and exploring new compositional ideas, unlike his other groups and ensembles, which often feature international personnel. Audio One incorporates inspiration from the modern and free jazz legacy of Chicago, corresponding with seminal work of AACM artists as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, with funk and African music, and especially an Ethiopian influence.

Audio One's third album was recorded live at the Constellation and the Sugar Maple clubs in Chicago on two consecutive nights in August 2014. As on many Vandermark projects, the album title, as well as his compositions, are musical homages, reflections of other artist's work. The album is named after Austrian writer and poet Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), one of the most important German-speaking authors of post world war II. The first extended piece “Doble Negacion” is dedicated to American artist Michael Heizer who specializes in large-scale installations and earth art. This piece gains momentum - power and magnitude - patiently, transforming from atmospheric vibes and strings into a skeletal, infectious pulse and then a choir of reeds erupts and sings the call-and-response theme. Mid-piece it changes course with an open-ended and chaotic reeds interplay before the group resumes its playful and rhythmic mode. The second piece, “Boxers and Dancers”, is dedicated to the great Ethiopian sax player Getatchew Mekuria and to dancer and leader of the Fendika band Melaku Belay, with whom Vandermark toured and recorded. This is a funky piece that revolves around tight, addictive bass line, and its African-tinged theme is expanded and explored by the reeds choir, feeding the propulsive pulse in its turn.  

The third piece, “Uitgraving” is dedicated to the Dutch-American abstract expressionist artist Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and actually is an abstract, free-associative piece. There are few segments where the powerful drumming of Daisy dictates its contemplative, fast shifting course, but mostly is is fractured between quiet, introspective solos from all the musicians, dissected by brief chaotic interplay. The fourth and last piece, “Tape”, is dedicated to painter and installation artist Robert Irwin. It begins with a massive, Ethiopian-tinged reeds fanfare, soon transformed into rhythmic exploration of its moving theme, highlighting Adasiewicz's crystalline vibes sounds. When the reeds choir returns in full power, Vandermark and Bishop exchange commanding, fiery solos throughout its coda.  

Strong, interesting compositions. Excellent, opinionated musicians. Passionate, committed playing, full of energy. Brilliant album.



15 comments:

Anonymous said...

On the one hand Vandermark once said that he assigns the title to the pieces only after they were written/recorded. It's meant as a homage, they don't necessarily have a real meaning for the composition. On the other hand, the fact that he mentions Thomas Bernhard is interesting. Bernhard considered himself a plot destroyer and an exaggeration artist, he has developed his own sound with his language. This could be said about Vandermark (and other musicians in the field of improvised music) as well. A very good album, indeed. Klaus from Germany

Colin Green said...

Vandermark’s dedications have often troubled me. If, as I understand, they’re after the event associations, having a casual or coincidental relationship to the music, and sometimes none at all, why does he include them? They’re private associations which are of no help to the listener and encourage reading something into the music which isn’t there – and you can read something into anything if you try hard enough.

I suppose knowing that they have no direct relationship to the music other than in Vandermark’s post-performance musings means we’re free to ignore them, but not everyone is aware of that. In a sense, one can say the same thing about most titles to improvised music, but the difference here is the express dedication. It suggests something more significant, but which isn’t.

Antonio said...

This has puzzled me for some time now. Take Made to Break's "Before the Code" that I've reviewed; parts of the compositions on that record bear quite strong associations to the directors that they're dedicated to (in mood, structure). I think that even without a priori knowledge about which compositions were dedicated to which directors, I was able to discern between them.

Or maybe, as Colin puts it, I'm reading into something that isn't there. Who knows.

Colin Green said...

It is a problem. Take the example of Fassbinder: is the association a particular film technique or way of editing, a certain film or scene, maybe the whole of his adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz ? And even assuming one’s own association was the same as Vandermark’s, would it make a significant difference to how one heard the music, given that it wasn’t something to which regard was had during the performance? The obvious danger is encouraging the listener to approach the music as if it was the aural equivalent of a Rorschach ink blot test, which I’m sure is not what Vandermark has in mind, and would be a disservice to his music.

Loki Motive said...

Robbe-Grillet concludes his essay "The Use of Theory" by discussing the difficulty of novelists trying to essentialize their works, but discussing their motivations or justifications for the use of words or sentences, etc. He concludes by saying "[The novelist] implores us to believe him, to trust him. And when we ask him why he has written his book, he has only one answer: 'To try to find out why I wanted to write it.'" I've always found that an intriguing and useful passage, because it places the opinion of authors about on the same plane as readers. More to the point, in this discussion, I think it lends some credence to Vandermark's dedications. Vandermark, like anyone else, can look back at his creation and figure out who or what he thinks might align with the ideas he's reading into the improvisation/composition. It doesn't really matter if it was conceived with those concepts in mind, and, of course, you're free to ignore them, but it gives a glimpse into how he might view the piece. Whether that's important to you or not is really up to yourself.

Colin Green said...

Interesting, but it does sound a bit random, as if anything goes it's just up to oneself. It would certainly take the difficulty out of listening to music - it's just whatever I want it to be. Perhaps the answer to all my problems: solipsism.

Lee said...

I wonder a lot about this too. You occasionally see dedications popping up in Braxton's music, as well, but I don't feel up to the task of tracking the influence. That said, in Vandermark's work, there seems to be more association than randomness, at least to my ears. I think Eyal does a great job of teasing some of that out in this review. The album title itself seems too deliberate to be random.

Colin Green said...

I also wondered if the title was a play on "What the Butler Saw", either the Joe Orton play or the old saucy silent movies that could be seen at seaside piers in Britain. But I've no idea.

Paul said...

It makes for some good fun!

Colin Green said...

In fact, the title could be just a slightly surreal, Pythonesque conjunction of words. Our Ken, having a bit of a laugh - nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean squire.

Paul said...

I though you wrote Pynchonesque for a moment

Colin Green said...

And why not? We could get all Meta and self-referential. Completely off-topic, but I loved the film of Inherent Vice. Another great performance from Joaquín Pheonix as a man struggling and almost understanding what the hell's going on, but not quite getting there. A masterclass in facial acting.

Martin Schray said...

Finally - a discussion :-).
I talked to Vandermark after a Made To Break concert and asked him about the dedications (especially Fassbinder) and he said that they have nothing to do with the music. It's just a bow to other great artists he likes. That said, Colin is right. On the other hand I like to think of Vandermark's music as something which is close to Thomas Bernhard's writing. Bernhard's novels are well-structured, he uses various (often hidden) motifs which he likes to pick up again and again. And he uses similar stylistic elements in his works. Bernhard was a controversial person all his life, conservative Austrians hated him, which is why he wanted his works not to be sold in Austria after his death. I can recommend "Extinction" or "Old Masters", the first one his magnum opus, the latter is a nice introduction to his works.

Colin Green said...

That's always struck me as a bit disingenuous. Prepared to take the royalties during his life, but only principled enough to stop them after his death, when he could no longer enjoy them.

Steve Reynolds said...

Love the 4th track which is the most abstract. I wish KV would record a whole session of more abstract compositions with a large ensemble with electronics