Maybe Ken Vandermark is a genius. The MacArthur Foundation certainly thought so: in 1999, they awarded the Chicago-based saxophonist a substantial chunk of cash to do with as he pleases. He’s already indicated that he plans to use the money to continue to push jazz forward into the new millennium. Which is good news for jazz fans. At the age of 35, Vandermark has already assembled an impressive and sizeable discography that places him in many ways above and beyond the young lions touted as the saviors of jazz only a few years back. What most greatly distinguishes Vandermark from the current pack is his willingness to re-visit and work within the idiom of free jazz. His work with the superb NRG Ensemble, Sweden’s AALY Trio (who explore the music of Albert Ayler) and his always-experimental fellow Chicagoan, Fred Anderson, have showcased Vandermark’s trademark lung power and expansive blowing. On Design in Time, Vandermark tones it down somewhat, opting for a more melodic and even introspective approach, while still maintaining a high degree of energy and movement. The results are impressive: this is a flat out stellar jazz album, even though it may well come to occupy only a minor place in Vandermark’s already considerable ouevre.
The Sound in Action trio has Vandermark on sax and clarinet, and Robert Barry and Tim Mulvenna on drums. Each drummer is recorded on a different channel (Barry on the right, Mulvenna on the left), and together they map out an astonishingly rich rhythmic landscape that Vandermark explores with skill and dynamism. His playing is by turns intelligent, inspired, overpowering, soulful, sweet—and sometimes all of these at once. The album begins with a flurry of energetic squawks and squeals over a turbulent wave of drumming on Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years.” Robert Barry is best known for his work with Sun Ra in the 1950s, and his standout work on Ra’s “Sounds and Something Else,” makes Vandermark’s phrasing on the clarinet all the more poignant. What is perhaps most impressive here is how well Vandermark’s own compositions (“One More Once,” “Well Suited,” “Cut to Fit” and “Top Shelf”) stack up to the selections that he’s chosen from Albert Ayler (“Angels”), Ornette Coleman (“Feet Music”), Don Cherry (“The Things”) and Thelonious Monk (“Top Shelf”). There isn’t a weak track on the entire album.
One wonders how Vandermark does it. He is one of the busiest jazz musicians in the business, either fronting or involved with so many groups that he himself has admitted to finding it difficult to keep track of them (currently on the go: the DKV Trio, the Vandermark 5, the AALY Trio, Sound in Action, the Chicago Bridge Unit, the Signal to Noise Unit, and other groups that have no name). His work with these units ranges from composed pieces to strict improvisation. Yet far from being tired or repetitive, Vandermark’s horn always sounds fresh and bright. It is perhaps because he is so conscious of the legacy of jazz (especially free jazz) and his responsibility to it. In a recent interview in conjunction with the MacArthur grant, Vandermark explained that “knowing that guys like Max Roach and Cecil Taylor, [Anthony] Braxton, Ornette [Coleman], Steve Lacy…I mean, literally when they were my age they were changing the face of the music. I feel an obligation to try to push myself to aspire to do something like that.” In Vandermark’s case, it’s not sacrilegious to imagine that his name will one day stand alongside these great innovators of jazz music.