Burn the Incline is the remarkable fourth album from The Vandermark 5. The V5 have struck that delicate balance of looking forward without fear of looking back, always giving a reverent nod to their precursors even as they map out new territories. The results smoke. Kent Kessler’s contemplative bass opens things up on the first track, “Distance,” signaling a series of turns that surprise and satisfy. While there is a definite complexity here, it is played out with the lightest touch, resulting in a seemingly aleatory development. By the time that first track hits full-throttle, Kessler’s solid bass is in an angular lock-down with Jeb Bishop’s singular guitar work, Tim Mulvenna’s drums and the horns of Dave Rempis and Ken Vandermark. But how did we get there? It is hard to say, which is part of the fun. Each move is made in accordance with an internal logic so subtle that it catches the listener off guard.
While this stands on the more composed end of the spectrum of Vandermark’s work (which is heavily informed by both the process and traditions of improvisation), the intensity in level of interaction throughout the recording makes it abundantly clear that these five musicians really listen to each other. Each track is noteworthy in its singularity while comprising part of a provocative whole.
Together and apart, members of The Vandermark 5 are a palpable presence on the out-jazz landscape. The musicians bring their collaborative attentiveness to a range of other projects. Vandermark has maintained a vibrant jazz and improv program at Chicago’s Empty Bottle for quite some time, and he is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship. (May more funding free up performers from the banality of labor.) These musicians are doing important work. This record is a compelling argument against purist nostalgia for jazz as if it were a genre that came and went in the past; it is positively present.