Ken Vandermark Trio / Steve Tromans Quartet, Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, 26/09/2012.
Friday, September 28, 2012
Reviewed by: Ian Mann
An evening of uncompromising improv from two groups representing the ongoing bridge building process between the jazz scenes of the “second cities” of Birmingham and Chicago.
Ken Vandermark Trio / Steve Tromans Quartet, Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, 26/09/2012.
The first “Jazz Club” night of the Jazzlines autumn season was an evening of uncompromising improv from two groups representing the ongoing bridge building process between the jazz scenes of the “second cities” of Birmingham and Chicago. Jazzlines promoter Tony Dudley-Evans and musician Steve Tromans made a fact finding visit to Chicago in February 2012 and a year on a group of Birmingham musicians will visit Chicago to collaborate with some of that city’s leading players. More on that later.
Chicagoan Ken Vandermark (tenor & baritone saxes, clarinet) is a regular visitor to the UK and no stranger to Birmingham, having performed in the city on a number of previous occasions. My former co-writer Tim Owen is a particularly keen fan of Vandermark’s playing and has written extensively about his music both for The Jazzmann and for Tim’s own new Dalston Sound blog http://www.dalstonsound.wordpress.com
For the Jazzmann Tim has written about Vandermark’s work with Lean Left (a collaboration between Vandermark, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen Love and guitarists Terrie Ex and Andy Moor of Dutch punk/noise pioneers The Ex) and the Ken Vandermark 5, an all American collaboration. Then there’s the ongoing duo with Nilssen Love and the trio Fire Room which sees the regular duo augmented by electronics artist Lasse Marhaug.
These are only the groups Tim has written about, Vandermark’s website reveals him to be involved in a plethora of other projects including Peter Brotzmann’s mighty Tentet. In the mercurial world of improv it’s a means of keeping the music fresh.
Tim has written so glowingly of Vandermark that I thought I owed it to myself to see this titan of the improvised music scene in the flesh. This was the second date of a short UK and Ireland tour put together by double bassist Olie Brice who appeared here alongside Vandermark and Birmingham born drummer Mark Sanders, the latter now a bulwark of the London jazz and improv scene.
Before we heard from this impressive trio the first set of the evening was performed by Birmingham pianist Steve Tromans and his quartet featuring Mike Fletcher (alto sax, flute), Chris Mapp (double bass) and Miles Levin (drums), all key figures on the Birmingham jazz scene. Tromans is fascinating musician and a deep thinker about the music, one I have seen and heard in a variety of contexts. These have included his acclaimed duo with with young drummer JJ Wheeler (their album “Blue Room” was released in early 2012 and is reviewed elsewhere on this site) and an eleven hour solo piano marathon at the 2011 Harmonic Festival at the Midlands Arts Centre or mac, a performance reviewed for the site by my wife Pam. With members of tonight’s line-up Tromans has deconstructed the works of the jazz greats (Monk, Mingus, Shorter and particularly John Coltrane) either as the Steve Tromans Quartet or the three piece Debop Band. However for tonight’s performance he decided to honour the spirit of the evening and the quartet played a single wholly improvised piece lasting around forty minutes or so. Tromans is an inherently inquisitive musician and it’s fair to say that none of the performances I’ve seen from him have been remotely alike. It’s an approach that has bred a mix of roaring successes and noble failures but a Steve Tromans performance is invariably going to be interesting. Tonight’s was no exception.
Tromans began this lengthy group improvisation by producing a flurry of notes from his Yamaha electric keyboard and establishing a busy rhythmic pattern that provided the backbone for Fletcher’s lengthy opening sax salvo and enhanced Miles Levin’s busy and powerful drumming. Tromans’ first solo took the form of typically exploratory chord patterns above a backdrop of still busy drums and bass before Fletcher took up his horn again to deliver another broadside of garrulous alto.
However in a piece that ebbed and flowed in the spirit of true improv there were also gentler, more ruminative sections characterised by Fletcher’s tentative alto musings, the ethereal trilling of Tromans’ electric piano and the scraping of Levins’ cymbals. However the most distinctive element of these more reflective moments was the rich sound of Mapp’s bowed bass, particularly when he entered into an absorbing dialogue with Fletcher who had by now switched to flute. Only when this drifted increasingly into abstraction did the energy levels rise again with Tromans’ fractured Keith Tippett/Cecil Taylor style runs culminating in a feverish solo accompanied by Levin’s volcanic drumming as the music went into a kind of piano “power trio” mode. When the tumult subsided Fletcher returned to the fray and calmed things down with long, melodic saxophone lines that sounded as if they might have been written, arguably the holy grail for the committed improviser. The rumble of Levin’s mallets added a certain grandeur before Tromans upped the energy levels again with a strong melodic statement of his own, hitting a groove (again almost sounding written) above Levin’s powerful rock rhythms before the whole piece fragmented to culminate in a free jazz squall enhanced by the grainy tones of Mapp’s arco bass.
The Tromans quartet had taken us on a musical journey, visiting several different destinations, sometimes losing listeners along the way but mainly keeping everything and everybody right on track. Most of these musicians have tackled free improv before, notably at the 2011 Harmonic Festival, jointly organised by Mapp and Percy Pursglove, but it’s a not a style any of them play on a regular basis. I felt that all four acquitted themselves well on a piece that developed a strong narrative arc and featured some excellent group and individual moments. I’m sure it represented something of a challenge but they rose to it convincingly. Well done guys.
Vandermark plays this kind of music all the time and his assurance was clear from the off. The first of four largely improvised pieces was structured enough to ensure that Vandermark featured on his three chosen instruments in turn, beginning with tenor saxophone on which he immediately demonstrated both his huge tone and his extraordinary fluency as an improviser. He’s a forceful and energetic player who isn’t afraid to introduce elements of the blues and r’n'b into his vocabulary. Meanwhile Olie Brice on double bass exhibited a huge woody tone and augmented his muscular pizzicato work with dark, grainy bowing, sometimes using the bow on the strings in a highly percussive manner. At the drums Mark Sanders brought both a kinetic energy and a remarkable lightness of touch, even at his most forceful Sanders exhibits a certain grace and a keen eye for detail. He’s a readily sympathetic and interactive player who gives great support to his colleagues and never resorts to mere bludgeoning.
Vandermark’s first tenor solo was a tour de force with the saxophonist exploring the full range of his instrument, sometimes venturing into the range of almost impossible high register bat like squeaks.
His second was quieter but no less eloquent and at times sounded almost song like. The obligatory features from Brice and Sanders sustained the interest, the bassist deploying the techniques outlined above, his bowing sometimes sounding outrageously dirty and Sanders supplementing the range of his kit with an array of small cymbals.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Vandermark’s performance was his work on clarinet, at first sounding breathily high pitched and eerie, the other worldliness embellished by Brice’s bowing and Sanders’ ghostly cymbal shimmers and scrapes. Vandermark also revealed an astonishing technical facility on the instrument with a dazzling display of circular breathing and a sustained high note that threatened to disappear into “only dogs can hear it” territory. He followed these pyrotechnics with a relatively more conventional solo above the polyrhythmic rumble of Sanders’ mallets.
The drummer then increased the energy levels with a solo interlude that epitomised his twin virtues of power and subtlety with Brice subsequently taking over on the bass before Vandermark picked up the baritone for the closing section. At first his playing was spare and ruminative but he gradually ramped up the tension, playing a vocalised vamp as the focus temporarily switched to bass and drums before the rasp of the baritone brought the twenty minute plus improvisation to a close. This had been a powerful tour de force , full of bravura playing but still exhibiting considerable subtlety.
The second piece, clocking in at between fifteen and twenty minutes was an extended tenor feature with Vandermark’s muscular opening salvo leading first into a Sanders drum solo and then an arco solo from Brice, the bassist producing some remarkable sounds by bowing below the bridge. Eventually the three musicians coalesced with Vandermark and Brice playing interlocking melody lines underscored by the martial patterns of Sander’s drums. A solo sax episode featured a series of pecks, squeaks and blats before developing into another high octane solo driven on by similarly virile bass and drums.
Vandermark thanked the Birmingham audience for turning out in numbers to “support this music, whatever it’s called”. Certainly the function room of the Hare & Hounds was commendably full- “not bad for an improv gig on a wet Wednesday night in Birmingham” as Chris Mapp had opined at half time. Vandermark also thanked Sanders and particularly Brice for putting the tour together and spoke of his love of the UK and its regional differences with particular reference to Birmingham as he acknowledged Tony Dudley-Evans. Newcastle also got a mention, notably the occasion on which Vandermark took a cab and couldn’t understand a word the driver was saying. “Don’t worry mate” called a wag from the floor “We wouldn’t have been able to understand him either!”
Levity over Vandermark announced that the next piece would be the last. This was a brief (five minutes or so) outing for Vandermark on clarinet, his solo intro featuring some remarkable overblowing, percussive sounding pecking and astonishing high register trills. However this was not all about technique, Vandermark’s duet with Brice on bowed bass produced moments of genuine beauty with Sanders subsequently augmenting the pair with his quirky but effective drumming often deploying one mallet and one stick. Having produced the perfect vignette after the two previous long hauls the trio got a great reception from the crowd and remained on stage to deliver a fourth piece that was essentially an encore. Again this was around the five minute mark and saw Vandermark picking up his baritone to deliver foghorn like blasts, pecks and squawks above the patter of Sanders’ hand drums. Some of the sounds Vandermark produced sounded metallic and almost guitar like yet all was resolved with a gently hypnotic coda.
I’ll admit that this area of music is more Tim Owen’s forte than mine and occasionally I found myself struggling to find direction and meaning. Nevertheless one couldn’t help but be impressed with the sheer technique and power of Vandermark’s playing and the closing two short pieces were almost perfect cameos after the challenges of the more extended improvisations. Sanders and Brice proved to be excellent foils and both impressed not only with their solos but also with their overall contributions. This trio has worked together often enough to know each other’s playing well and this was evident throughout from the high levels of group interaction. Vandermark is a master of his chosen field and I was glad to have taken the opportunity of seeing such a legend of the improvised world at work.
Remaining dates on the Vandermark trio tour are;
28/09/12 – Brighton. The Open House, 146 Springfield Road, BN1 6BZ. 8pm.
29/09/12 – Dublin. Whelans Upstairs, Wexford St, Dublin 2. 8pm. €14/12
In February 2013 Steve Tromans will visit Chicago with his trio featuring Mapp and Levin. Also making the trip from the UK will be Mark Sanders. These four will appear as half of an octet also featuring Chicago based musicians Vandermark and Dave Rempis (saxophones), James Falzone (clarinet) and Josh Berman (cornet). The Jazzlines organisation has commissioned Tromans to write new music to be performed both by the full octet and by smaller combinations of the musicians involved. Performances will take place at three of the leading clubs on Chicago’s avant jazz scene, The Hideout Club, Elastic and Hungry Brain. It is intended that the music will subsequently be performed in the UK by an ensemble of Birmingham based musicians and also that some of the Chicagoans involved will visit the UK in 2014 to tour the compositions. Full details of the project can be found in Steve Tromans’ blog on the Town Hall/Symphony Hall website http://www.thsh.co.uk
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