RARA AVIS is a new project, “a cooperative,” explains Ken Vandermark, “without a designated leader”, which has the Chicagoan reedsman in the company of a group of relatively youthful Italians: the saxophonist (and dEN Records label boss) Stefano Ferrian, double bassist Luca Pissavini, pianist Simone Quatrana , and SEC_ (sic), who’s in charge of a Revox (tape recorder) and instant sound treatments.
This ploughs up new ground: RARA AVIS has much in common with Vandermark and Scandinavian Noise artist Lasse Marhaug’s Fire Room trio; less with other small units such as Sonore and Free Fall; very little with the Vandermark Five; and practically none with DKV Trio, though it’s definitely in the same league.
Their debut album is a two-disc set, with the quintet together for 46 minutes on the Mutations disc, then sub-divided in duos and trios on the shorter Multicellulars Mutations.
Vandermark says: “The fields of sound the ensemble explores are unique in terms of texture, velocity, dynamics – the traditional hierarchies of what instrument is ‘melodic,’ what instrument supplies ‘rhythm,’ are so turned on their head and blurred that it is often impossible to identify the creative sources at work.” Yet one of the great pleasures of the recording is that, however non idiomatic the approach, each musician remains faithful to the distinctive characteristics of their chosen instrument(s).
“Adaptation” is non-jazz from the get-go, a diffusion of fluting and wavering high-pitch sounds and scrabbly contact noises, attenuated blowing from the reeds, and inner-piano randomisation.
“Genetic Drift” names its own style of progress through various ‘movements’, from direct dual saxophonics underpinned by abstract but richly acoustic plucked double bass, through a passage where SEC_ tears the soundfield open with water samples and Quatrana responds with a liquid ripple of keys that becomes a flood when the saxophones re-enter. Pissavini plays his double bass first right down by the tailpiece, where the strings emit tight tensile pings like the tines of a kalimba; then with full-blooded emphasis. Later (on a track lasting 12:37), relatively conventional free play gives way to foley-style electro-acoustics.
No matter how abstract this all gets, there’s plenty of warmth in the musician’s attentiveness to one another, and there’s little risk to the open-minded listener of alienation, much less boredom.
“Gene Flow”, again well titled, is more unified and directional, a beguiling blend of classically informed pianism with bass and reeds in full sympathy. These elements are compacted with more alien strata, but only SEC_ seeks to discombobulate with queasy resonances. “Mutation” initially translates that tension into all-aflutterness; it then grows, a gathering storm of unmoored sound elements, with saxophones, bass and piano seeking connections in an increasingly powerful blizzard of sound treatments.
Saxophones solo lyrically over layered, abrasive arco bass and restless pianism on “Natural Selection”. The tug-of-war dynamics create a compelling tension, with each player able to extrapolate from melody-hints into solos or knotty entanglements.
SEC_ is both the wildcard and the synthesiser of the various laminae of RARA AVIS. Witness, at last, “Speciation” on which he shades a density of collective excitation, baiting breakaway soloists with styptic disruptions that provoke re-engagement.
I’ve already written enough without going into detail of the Multicellulars Mutations disc. Suffice to say it’s nice to hear these players’ interactions in more intimate settings. It contains only six tracks, clocking under 22 minutes in total, which could easily have fit onto the main disc, but it’s nice to have the separation. (I like the new dEN poster-fold card sleeve design too, incidentally; much better than the label’s too-fiddly former packaging.)
DKV Trio – Past Present (Not Two)
DKV Trio is a longstanding, infrequently united unit comprising Vandermark and two fellow Chicagoans, bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Hamid Drake.
Drake is explicitly rhythmic for a free drummer, and his partnership with Kessler is powerfully propulsive, fully of bounce, and, sometimes, funky as hell. Kessler is the regular bassist in both The Vandermark 5 and Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, where his plush, punchy plucking and deep-drawn bowing are just the mettlesome ticket.
The full Past Present set corrals seven albums of DKV Trio concert recordings into a limited-edition box set. Of those seven discs, I have just three; I can’t testify to the rest of it.
Vandermark, in his notes, says that the set encapsulates a specific phase of trio’s life, beginning fourteen years after its inception with a Wels 2008 festival appearance (as documented on Live At Wells & Chicago), and ending at Wels 2011, where DKV played as an augmented sextet (which you can hear on Trost’s recent Long Story Short – Wels 2011 Curated by Peter Brötzmann box set).
What I have to review are two live albums recorded on consecutive nights in December 2010 in Chicago and Milwaukee, and one stand-alone live set dedicated to the music of Don Cherry, which dates from 2009.
Vandermark says that although DKV’s music is mostly “created on the spot”, they have occasionally made “a significant exception” for the music of Don Cherry. Never more so, presumably, than on the 2009 date, where they play exclusively Cherry compositions such as “Remembrance”, “The Thing”, “Elephantasy” and “Brown Rice”.
Inevitably perhaps, the Cherry-riffing DKV sound has much in common with the garage-Arkestral funkadelia of Vandermark’s Spaceways Inc. trio, in which Kesler makes way for the mostly plugged-in Nate McBride. It’s a great set, the DKV, full of chewy rumination on Cherry’s indelibly melodic freedoms; but it can’t beat DKV in spontaneous creation mode.
The Milwaukee and Chicago discs would make a coherent stand-alone set—excellent complements to the Nilssen-Love/Vandermark duet’s Milwaukee Volume and Chicago Volume albums, which were recorded June 10 & 11 2007.
Both DKV 2010 sets are powerful and invigorating in their immediacy. The trio set about Milwaukee with a snap, the brisk buoyancy of the rhythm pair carrying the weight of Vandermark’s muscular, R&B-infused sax figures with surprising grace. The main performance, indexes 2-4, moves from a sashay strut reminiscent of Rollin’s “St Thomas” to something closer to Sun Ship-era Coltrane. Vandermark works his licks over methodically but with increasing passion, ultimately growing fully fierce. Beneath him, the bass/drum combination is punchy and phenomenal; Drake deploying mallets on toms for a tight-strung skin sound and Kessler dug deep in walkin’ grooves. At index 4 there’s a shift down-gear, but the trio remain bright and combustible, carrying still-glowing embers.
Milwaukee index 5 explores other sides of Coltrane’s influence. The trio essay a poignant ballad that made me think of Coltrane’s “After the Rain”, though Vandermark’s yearning contains more overt jazz historic traces than Trane’s typically did; and Kessler takes a plummy, melodious pizzicato solo á la Jimmy Garrison. Indexes 6 and 7 wind down further, moving from slithery bass bowing through silence to an unhurried, near half-hour rumination on what’s just past.
The Chicago set is similarly rangy, but has has it’s own unique character, particularly Vandermark’s opening gambit that takes on a cartoonish (think Pink Panther) 60s spy vibe, with Drake all percussive scuttle and Kessler at a brisk walk, on to something altogether fierier and more garrulous, with all finally limbering down to a funky strut; all this in just six minutes.
On a thoughtful ballad for sax solo plus percussion, Vandermark locks into a repetition that draws him out of introspection before the rhythm kicks in, heralding a return to the previous night’s Caribbean vibe. The interplay here is marked by typically DKV exuberance, fervid but seldom properly grizzly. It’s all about the funk-feel, kicking back and digging in on a freewheeling groove, with Vandermark doggedly and insistently truffling for nuggets of soul.
DKV wrap the set with a beautifully restrained passage of late-night noir, revisiting that 60s thing with maximal restraint.
As I say, I don’t know about the other four discs, but on these three the sound quality is good—on the 2010 recordings it’s excellent; much better than on earlier DKV albums such as “Baraka” and “Trigonometry”. Perhaps this gives the set an edge, but, for a one-shot taste, Live At Wells & Chicago is still the one.