By Keith Prosk and Paul Acquaro
Momentum 4 is a box set of duo recordings by Ken Vandermark, recorded at the Elastic Sound Studios in Chicago in 2015 and 2019, and at NYC's Stone in January 2018. The idea was to capture rare duo performances - even if the musical relationships have been ago long established.
In our review, we have deviated from the order of the discs and begin with Keith's assessment of discs 2 and 3 where Vandermark is in duet with electronics player Ikue Mori and pianist Kris Davis. Then, we'll come back to my thoughts on his duets with drummers Paul Lytton and Hamid Drake, and finally bassist William Parker.
What makes Vandermark so special is not just the distinctive character of his musicianship but his character itself, and the feedback loop between them. His writing articulates an openness to listen and to learn; his playing demonstrates it by giving others generous space and apt communication. The subversion of personal patterns is a constant motif. This creative giant, who should by now be comfortable and confident in every move, is in such a position exactly because he’s purposefully not. For this reason I gravitated towards these discs, which feature musicians that don’t have a decades-long rapport with Vandermark like Lytton, Parker, and Drake. Freely-played duos with less-than-familiar musicians seems like excellent laboratory conditions for witnessing the instant development of Vandermark.
Disc 2: Ikue MoriIkue Mori first played with Vandermark during his first Stone residency in 2016, documented on Momentum 1: Stone, with Nate Wooley and Joe Morris. It was a strong set among many strong sets, just like this one, which was recorded at Vandermark’s second Stone residency in 2018 (along with the Davis and Parker discs). For 46 minutes, split across two tracks, Mori is on laptop and Vandermark is on saxophone. Mori’s software and technique can generate a chimerical barrage of percussion, displaying many faces of beat and rhythm simultaneously, like a digital drumming hecatoncheires; pulses created by droning pitches’ oscillating frequencies, electric purrs and percussive flutters, glitched clicks and cavernous water drops, and more recognizable drum machine sounds can occur closely together. But the timbres are often soft and the volume is often low, so it feels non-aggressive. And though this seemingly living percussive environment sometimes flirts with becoming ambient, Mori avoids this with judicious strokes of sound surrounded by plenty of space. Perhaps because of its tirelessness, or perhaps because of its innumerable lines in contrast to the mostly monophonic sax, the software environment can feel like a wall which Vandermark throws himself against, starting the set with energetic bursts of varying technique as if to test it.. It’s difficult to tell whether my ear adapts or Vandermark does or both but, as the set continues, Vandermark’s own high pitch frequency oscillations, snaking sinusoidal multiphonic lines, and glitchy click and tongue slap pulses sync well with Mori, phasing in and out of counterpoint. It’s perhaps the most rhythmic set I’ve heard from this rhythmic saxophonist. Some other Vandermark characteristics, like his deep vibrato and moody, smoky, soulful melodies, are here, and there’s a couple stunning moments where Mori’s environment focuses into a booming four on the floor beat over which Vandermark rips loose a freeform freakout. Vandermark’s instrument allows greater agility in communication, but Mori’s software is surprisingly mobile itself, allowing a conversation as lively as the other acoustic sets here. My favorite thing Vandermark has released all year, and it’s been quite a year for him.
Disc 3: Kris DavisKris Davis first played with Vandermark in 2016 during the sessions for Sing Me Some Cry, with Eric Revis and Chad Taylor. They reunite here for their second recording, for 3 tracks across 53 minutes, with Davis on piano and Vandermark on all sax again. The chemistry of this set belies their time spent together. They are rapidly responsive to each other. Davis’ muted rhythms and hammered keys, beautiful boppy chords and melodies, free flights, thunderous reverberations, and clock strikes and twinkling glissandos inside the piano are matched well with Vandermark’s rhythmic clicks, sultry soul tunes, energetic free frenzies, and resonant vibrato. They follow each other’s ebbs and flows through volume, space, and time and also up and down their instruments registers like friends who finish each others sentences. It’s not just a communicative match, but Davis also seems to share Vandermark’s rhythmic essence and a similar inside-outside aesthetic. The set seems so natural, you’ll wonder why they didn’t start playing together sooner.
- Keith Prosk
Disc 1: Paul Lytton; Disc 5: Hamid DrakeIn the thoughtful booklet accompanying the box set, Vandermark talks about the impact that the work of the first generation of British improvisers, who broke free from the parameters of jazz and developed their own musical language, has had on him. Lytton’s history itself goes back to the late 60’s in London and he has a long history of playing with the musicians of from this movement. Vandermark recalls a particularly revelatory conversation with Lytton where he wanted to draw on what he had learned from the music, to which the drummer explained that the Saxophonist's playing "implied a beat."
It seems that if we were to look at the work - at least on these two discs and the one with William Parker, which I’ll get to in a moment - we are indeed contending with rhythmic instincts that are an integral part of the musician's DNA. This is also why I think I have always enjoyed Vandermark’s work so much. No matter how 'out there' he may get on the sax or clarinet, there is a still deep rhythmic notion that holds everything together. Starting this collection with the Lytton duo recording seems just right.
What you hear are a pair who have worked together - on and off - for two decades. Lytton and Vandermark recorded English Suites back in 1999 (Wobbly Rail), he appears on 2013’s Nine ways to read a bridge (Not Two) in a trio with trumpeter Nate Wooley/Vandermark, as well as on a 2004 Okkadisk release, CINC. There are others, but more important is what they are doing now (or rather, in 2015 when they met at the Elastic Sound Studios in Chicago), which is nothing less than captivating. Lytton's playing is crisp and urgent. He provides ample support for Vandermark to let loose with a fury of ideas. From the moment the first track begins something is happening. It’s a little tepid, maybe for 10 seconds, then the percussive roles begin, no straight ahead time, but an insistent pulse pushing the saxophonist. The communication between the two is audible, there are slight pauses, almost like Vandermark is turning to Lytton and asking “you good?” Their track, ESS3, which is the longest, plays strongly with the dynamics. A long stretch finds Vandermark working the periphery of his instrument, while Lytton provides small, nearly inaudible, accents. A brilliant start to the collection.
Hamid Drake is a sympathetic drummer. His work with William Parker stands in my mind as a one of the most important rhythm sections in contemporary free jazz, and it is interesting to hear the two of them working separately here with Vandermark. Interestingly enough, I believe that Vandermark and Drake's musical relationship is around the same length as Drake and Parker's, as Vandermark notes in the booklet, they first played together in 1994, which resulted in the DKV trio with bassist Kent Kessler. Interestingly, Vandermark and Drake have not play as a duo much until this session date at Elastic Sound Studio.
The long term relationship bears fruit on the closing disc of the set where the duo explores the full spectrum of sounds and approaches. From the opening bars, Drake plays with a calmer energy than Lytton - not to say he avoids faster tempos and denser patterns, but the approach is different. I especially like the exploratory part of the track ESS 2B, here Vandermark's clarinet tone is warm and reedy, though at some moments shrill, and Drake is deep in the background, providing choice accents. A similar moment occurs on ESS 2E, but this time Vandermark emerges from the search, delivering lithe and urgent melodic lines over Drake's expert accompaniment. In between, ESS 2D features the baritone sax, with Vandermark displaying his signature deep pocket - insistent, direct, and friendly - along side Drake's similarly earthy solid drumming.
Disc 4: William Parker
Save the best for last? Hard to say, as this is overall such a strong set of music, but the duet with William Parker is certainly a strong contender. Again the booklet, Vandermark discusses his association with Parker, mentioning how it goes back twenty years to when they worked together in Peter Brotzmann's Chicago 10tet. Parker is a bassist who, again to my mind, can hardly do wrong. His playing, like Vandermark's, is a mix of searching and driving. The 15 minute mark in the first track, Stone 3A, is tender and warm, Vandermark's clarinet is light and the bassist's double stops and gentle pauses give the moment a perfect blend of motion and support. Likewise, in the Parker penned track 'Eventual (for Sunny Murray)', which was delivered the month after the legendary drummer's passing, the mutual sense of loss is palpable as the duo digs deep into the sound textures, even during the pulsating moments.
When this fourth installment of the Momentum series came out a few months ago, I quickly jumped at the chance to review it with my colleague Keith. I had thoroughly enjoyed the original set of recordings from Ken Vandermark's week at the Stone in January 2016 (and had had the chance to attend some of the concerts) and after the intensity of volumes 2 and 3, I was ready for more. Suffice to say, this is a heavy set of music, there is a lot to digest, and a lot to savor. I've had been listening to it for months now, repeatedly, and I hope you have been - or will soon be - as well.