It was almost as though last night’s volcanic performance by Ken Vandermark and Paal Nilssen-Love at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery was a set to a timer – a curious design for performance devoted almost exclusively to free jazz improvisation. But at the exact stroke of 9 o’clock, with the audience still casually chatting away, the Chicago saxophonist/clarinetist and the Norwegian drummer/percussionist tore into a ferocious and unyielding duet. The two didn’t spend time building an idea or riff, nor did they didn’t pace themselves into a gathering frenzy. They began at full force as equal engineers with a level of physical drive that was as expressive as it was fearsome. In short, the music didn’t simply seek and explore when it began. It detonated.
But while the stamina and intensity seldom subsided from these two longtime musical allies (and frequent visitors to Lexington’s Outside the Spotlight concert series, which also presented this concert), their musical vocabulary continually expanded. Nilssen-Love, for instance, began two of the evening’s three extended improvisations playing a snare drum with brushes. While the resulting sound may have been more subtle in terms of volume, the immediacy seemed just as vital as in the more thunderous sections. Those heavier segments, by the way, sounded even more torrential given the echo within the Niles Gallery. Both artists played without amplification, but the sound was atomic.
Vandermark shifted between tenor and baritone saxophones as well as clarinet and bass clarinet. While that certainly offered a wide musical palette for a duo configuration, it was the sheer force of his playing – whether he was responding to snippets of groove Love created or instigating broader reactionary blasts (especially on baritone) – that underscored the concert’s overall urgency.
Curiously, the dimensions offered within this often unrelenting performance were defined by the endings of the first and third improvisations. The first stopped on a dime with the same clarity and drama that began the set. The third, however, presented a very specific coda.
The audience had already applauded the preceding 12 minutes of rich chaos helmed largely by Nilssen-Love’s combustible playing. But then the music downshifted for one of the evening’s few plaintive moments. Nilssen-Love switched to mallets for a subtle percussive chant colored by tenor sax accents from Vandermark that sounded positively mournful in contrast to the sonic cyclone that shot through the room during the rest of the set. It was as though the duo has guided the audience through profound musical fury but chose to send them home with safe passage.