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Thursday, February 17, 2022

Ken Vandermark - Momentum 5: Stammer (triptych) (Audiographic, 2021) ***½

By Kenneth Blanchard

Ken Vandermark is a virtuoso on at least two instruments. One is the saxophone. Two is the impossible integration device. The various Vandermark 5 recordings were certainly instrumental in the ontogeny of my ear for jazz. Each V5 recording gave me something that I could hear and comprehend, as well as something that shocked and puzzled me. I am also a connoisseur of great titles: Airports of Light, Elements of Style, The Color of Memory.

Jazz composers sometimes appear as frustrated painters. Consider William Parker’s Painter’s Spring and Painter’s Winter . By chance, I suppose, this is the second recording I have covered recently that counts as much as performance art as jazz. Vandermark, I learn from the booklet that came with the recording, was inspired by another famous recording: Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room.

I confess that I have not experienced the entire 45 minutes of Lucier’s recording, but I did listen to part of it all the way through. You can listen to it here. It consists of short speech repeatedly recorded and played again. Very quickly the feedback reduces the words to an incoherent hum. The key to the word “stammer” can be heard in the first statement of Lucier’s text.

Vandermark more or less reverses the direction of coherence: giving us snippets of speech or dialogue, that come into intelligible focus only on occasion. This happens just behind the spread of compelling free jazz. Well, it did create in yours truly a desire for a French beret and a pipeful of hashish. Having neither on hand, I can still say that I was pleasantly propelled by Momentum 5.

One more reason for that lies in another word in the title: triptych. In the liner notes, KV informs us that he was inspired by Max Beckmann’s painting: The Actors (1942). I strongly recommend viewing Beckmann’s triptych before you listen to Vandermark’s Triptych. And while you are at it, take a look at Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1480 to 1505) and Francis Bacon’s Triptych (1944). Bosch’s trip may explain why Beckmann’s trip has a guy with a fish running down from his hat to his ass. Momentum 5 is a triptych (three panel painting) because it consists of three untitled tracks, each a hair over twenty minutes, punctuated by two short tracks.

Bandcamp lists the personnel as: Kim Alpert (visuals), Tim Barnes (percussion), Katinka Kleijn (cello), Damon Locks (samples/electronics), Nick Macri (basses), Lou Mallozzi (recordings/electronics), claire rousay (percussion), and Mars Williams (saxophones/little instruments). I gather that the Bandcamp download contains a video, but I have not seen it.

The tracks have numbers but no other title. Track 1 begins with a sax flutter, quickly joined by percussion, which is quite vivid throughout. At about one minute, the vocal background begins. What sounds like a clip from NPR is the first coherent snip. Something about a boy being dragged off a bus by the police. Other clips seem to be dialogue, and some give us the effect of a mike in a room with lots conversations going on. In a voice that seems to pin down an irritated mother, we hear this: “you’re not Santa Claus you know… we expect to see you more than once a year.” The clips are repeated many times.

The music almost always cloaks the speech. It is classic free jazz in a classic Vandermark vein. If the music crowds out the words that we are tempted to try to hear, the instruments never crown out one another. I really like the sound of heavy strings, accompanied by long, emotive horn notes. There is plenty of that here.

In track 3 we get an explicit, technologically generated stutter. The bits of voice become increasingly distorted, sometimes slowed into a smear, and sometimes tightened into a helium-chipmunk effect. The middle of the track raises tempo, volume, and lets the crowd-voice sound compete with the instruments.

The final track begins with a rare stretch of coherent dialogue: apparently someone kicking off some kind of conference. The verbal material becomes much more prominent but increasingly distorted at the same time.

Now I can listen to Vandermark and this ensemble all day, pretty much any day. I nevertheless find his project a bit frustrating. I have the impression that, if I could just spend enough time listening to it, I would get out of it a fair portion of what he invested. I can’t. Very few people ever could.

I’m not recommending against the purchase or the listen. I do think this sort of project puts the difficulties of an art fan, in a world awash with projects, right up front.

In addition to the recording, there is a film (or is it the other way round?). The Stammer film is a literal triptych: three rectangular screens against a black background. Each screen displays colorful, frenetic, intricate patterns. A narrative voice, persistently distorted, pronounces snippets of dialogue that mostly seem to come out of a small meeting room, or a court rooms, or a political speech. The left screen gradually begins printing fragments of phrases. I think the flashing art on the screens is built up from vertical and horizontal lines. A loaf of bread, a tab of acid, and thou… .


Gary Chapin said...

I listened to this just last week and it is genuinely striking. I haven't listened to as much Vandermark as others (though I saw the documentary), and didn't know about his work with electronics. This was great.