Free Music Ensemble Underground

How do you judge the work of composer / saxophonist Ken Vandermark? I would say by sheer determination. This guy has fire, guts and at least a few record companies behind him that will back up whatever project he puts his mind to. First, a disclaimer needs to be voiced: I’m not a Ken Vandermark aficionado or a huge fan. I’ve only come across his work sporadically over the years. With that said, the trio project FME (Free Music Ensemble) is the best thing I’ve heard Vandermark involved with. Underground comprises three players: drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, bassist Nate McBride and of course, Vandermark on reeds. This is a very loose, free record. All players stretch out to the fullest. The four compositions (each dedicated to a different inspiration: Joe McPhee, Paul Lytton, Joe Morris and Peter Brötzmann) stretch out to almost 20 minutes apiece. There is no rush, no hurry to get to the goal of the destination. It’s the road that’s more important than the finish. The players feel so comfortable with each other that the phrase "leisurely improv” may be appropriate here. Vandermark never engages in total full-out sax attacks, while the rhythm section of Nilssen-Love and McBride engage in long duo dialogues along the way. Underground is a success for Vandermark, one that will please any jazz or improve fans alike. Nuclear Assembly Hall is another project that Ken Vandermark got involved with. Whether he was the mastermind behind this or not is not all that important. What is crucial is the music. This is an octet that is for the most part made up of Swedish and Norwegian players, along with Americans Jeb Bishop on trombone and Vandermark on reeds. The two-CD set Atomic / School Days is steeped in composition. This is music that is heavily composed and precisely played. There is no allowance here for mistakes. Over the course of almost two hours, the octet presents the listener with broad-minded and open-ended themes. Once again, everyone is allowed to stretch out, to play their very brief solos, but this time, there is tight structure. Structure is not a bad thing necessarily. In this context, Nuclear Assembly Hall shines through. The music is warm, inviting, and definitely can’t be classed under the free-improv banner. These are two very different, but highly recommended releases from Ken Vandermark. (Okkadisk)