in performance: ken vandermark

ken vandermark.

ken vandermark.

Ken Vandermark wound up a five day, four city Kentucky residency last night at the University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music armed with only three instruments. There were no collaborators to shoot ideas off of and no rhythm section to serve as a backdrop (or safety net). The performance simply presented the veteran Chicago composer, bandleader and reed specialist playing in a totally improvised (“that means I don’t know what I’m going to do”) and unamplified environment. Alone.

If that suggests a sterile concert environment or, in the opposite extreme, an opportunity for very capable improvisational skills to become a weighty indulgence, rest assured that neither surfaced. Performing two untitled improvised pieces each on tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone and B-flat clarinet, Vandermark conjured music that sounded predominantly composed (it wasn’t) and soloed with an exactness that revealed remarkable variance and unexpected harmony. In doing so, the openly free passages sounded all the more volcanic.

Opening on tenor, Vandermark discovered a cyclical riff that he interspersed with short jabs of boppish counterpoint that created, in effect, a solo conversation. A brief turn of classically hued clarinet followed before Vandermark turned to the beastly baritone.

Initially, he brought the instrument to life with puncturing, shotgun-like blasts played so briskly and with such respiratory-like voicing that the resulting music sounded like funk. Vandermark hardly came up for air during the improv, as well, making his playing sound as fluid as it was playful.

Returning to clarinet for a longer improv on clarinet that was dedicated to Pee Wee Russell, Vandermark unfurled the tune with torchy echoes of the blues. The music’s introspective nature soon gave way to potent wails and sweeps that strayed purposely from the blues without ever forsaking them.

A second baritone adventure opened with a suitably rustic drone but soon reached for registers far above the earthy tones usually associated with the instrument. The program then concluded where it began – on tenor sax. But this time the playing took off with galloping clusters of scorched riffs repeated like a mantra. Eventually, the music burst open with fractured runs, some almost melodic, bouncing madly as if they were ricocheting off each other.

Such was the vocabulary of three instruments and an improviser possessing the cunning to make each sing with immediacy and invention.

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