|Paal Nilssen-Love (dr) and Ken Vandermark (sax, cl)|
Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love are sitting right there on the small stage of Underflow’s basement, chatting casually like two friends during the half hour interval of their two sets. Which is true because they are friends. They have known each other for quite a while and have collaborated in various groupings with other great artists, and as a duo as well.
I write "collaborated" but that sounds too professional, too formal if you wish. It’s the freedom of intimacy, of friendship, of people getting together and producing things that matter. This is what I’m looking for and this is what these guys delivered. I’m not talking about the mannerism of amateurism but the real bonds that develop in any human relationship. And friendship, collective thinking, playing music together can produce those bonds.
This Norwegian-American duo has produced some fine examples, in the form of albums, of a fine balance between, rhythm, melody and the joys of improvisation. In their two sets (clocking on one hour and a half) they presented to us this balance. Paal Nilssen-Love is, probably, one of the two finest drummer-percussionists of his generation (the second being Chris Corsano). He can switch from rock drumming to a free polyrhythmic barrage and then indulge in unpredicted non-rhythmic improvisations using all kinds of percussion. I was lucky enough to have caught him live a few years back, so I knew what was coming to me. On the other hand I saw Ken Vandermark for the first time and I must tell you that he is a powerhouse with the saxophone. Even after a thirty minutes continuous track, he blew notes and quarter notes with impeccable technique and force, letting us know that the physical endurance that a sax needs is not a big of a deal for him.
As Ken put it, the eighty people crowd were really energizing for them. There was way too much enthusiasm among us indeed. It might seem odd to you people living in western Europe or North America, but for us here in Greece this might have been the best gig of the year. It seemed to me that this energy transformed into the, sometimes, bluesy Chicagoan sound of Ken’s sax and the ever energetic, sometimes frenzied, drumming of Love. Their sax-drums duos were muscular and more melodic. Ken sometimes reminded me (and I might be falling on the slippery road of clichés here) of his fellow reedsman from Chicago the great late Fred Anderson, while Paal was his impeccable self (well, you know I’m a fan by now…)
When Vandermark switched to the clarinet, the mood was less melody and more improvisation. I guess that this was the idea Nilssen-Love had imagined for the set, but Vandermark’s playing was paving the way to a more rhythmic – you could even say jazzy – performance. Switching form the clarinet to the sax and vice versa, there was a clearly audible choice from Vandermark. He was aspiring to present a sound both melodic and full of energy and, at the same time, leaving enough room for his fellow artist to present his own vision. I really enjoyed the fact that they surpassed the tradition of long solos by putting together their ideas (clearly understanding each after so many years of playing together) and, sometimes, confronting each other at the moment. As I mentioned on the beginning, this is a duo of both artistic and personal relationship and not a “collaboration”. So, you know, relationships tend to provoke those involved to explore new territories. That’s exactly what they did that night.
P.S. If we agree that for all of us the goal is the same, which is for this music to reach a bigger audience, then a 20 euros ticket is many steps towards the wrong direction. At the same time I must sing praise to anyone who pays money to bring those musicians to this very edge of Europe.