Since he disbanded the Vandermark 5, for fourteen years one of the most consistently exciting units in modern jazz, in 2010, Made To Break has emerged as perhaps the most potent of Chicago-based saxophonist/composerKen Vandermark’s working groups. Before the Code (Trost) is the quartet’s fourth album since 2013, and a advance on 2014’s Cherchez La Femme (Trost), which was excellent, moment-to-moment, but rather episodic, with a salient electronics component not quite comfortably embedded into the workings of an otherwise orthodox jazz ensemble.
This isn’t the first Vandermark project to incorporate electronics. Fred Lomberg-Holm played cello and electronics in Vandermark 5, Lasse Marhaug plays noise electronics in the Fire Room trio, and SEC_ plays tapes and sound treatments in the Italian quintet RARA AVIS. Before the Code is, however, Vandermark’s most successful integration of electronics into a tight-knit small group to date.
Made To Break’s Christof Kurzmann plays lloopp freeware, which is designed for live-improvising on Mac computers. Kurzmann runs the charhizma label while also recording diverse collaborations for other labels such as Erstwhile, notably with Austrian guitarist Burkhard Stangl (the double vinyl compilation Christoph Kurzmann -Then and Now, issued on Trost in 2014, includes a Vandermark/Kurzmann duet).
The group’s rhythm section is the inspired pairing of Timothy Daisy, a Chicago-based drummer who has previously backed Vandermark as one of two drummers in the Sound in Action trio, and Jasper Stadhouders, a Dutch guitarist and electric bassist best known for his work in Spinifex and the post-punk-inspired Cactus Truck.
Stadhouders replaces Devin Hoff, who played on Made To Break’s earlier albums, and it seems significant that where Hoff usually played acoustic bass, Stadhouders, who plays rebarbative electric guitar in Cactus Truck, also has a much more aggressive bass style that’s ideally suited to the intense, tightly-focused dynamics of Vandermark’s music.
The three pieces here, recorded in Vienna in November 2014, are all 10-20 minutes long, which suits Vandermark’s episodic compositional style in which parts typically compact, entwine and unknot dynamically, stretching out in taut funk- and R&B-inflected passages.
All three pieces are dedicated to filmmakers: Agnès Varda, a French feminist photographer and New Wave director of the 1950’s; Joshua Oppenheimer, American documentary filmmaker based in Denmark, whose debut feature was The Act of Killing (2012); and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, director, screenwriter, and actor – a leading light in the New German Cinema of the 1970s. These influences are worth noting, since they signify Vandermark’s intellectual engagement with the arts, which clearly informs the conception of his music.
The first cut, “Dial the Number (for Agnès Varda)” (20:24) kicks off aggressively with Daisy playing against a current of jittering electronica, Vandermark in full fluency. Stadhouders’ bass adds instant gravity and motivational pulse, and the music powers along. Kurzmann’s electronics, in dialogue with Vandermark’s sax, invite Vandermark to drop out on a breakdown, where the rhythm is fractured into rim clicks and a bass pulse fleetingly reminiscent of Timbaland’s millennial Missy Elliott productions: Vandermark’s music often has this gritty urban quality.
Stadhouders switches to a looser, more acoustic thrum as Vandermark re-enters, managing another driving passage that cedes to subtle noise electronics and skittering percussion. Daisy plays dynamically off Kurzmann’s glitchy lloopping, kicking against the static and equilibrium, finally punching through to a silence that’s disturbed only by obscure rustles, electronic chitter and Stadhouders’ probing bass, which ultimately links to a more settled plane of abstraction dominated by sax and electronics. With Kurzmann now silent and Stadhouders dropping out, the piece ends with a vibrant, vigorous interplay of reeds and drums.
Kurzmann’s electronics aren’t deployed, as they often are in free/jazz music, purely for textural contrast. Vandermark’s arrangements and the album’s mix both cast him on an equal footing with the others, who engage with the sound and grain of his input as they would with any acoustic or electric instrument. Incredibly, that’s all too rare.
“Off-Picture No. 119 (for Joshua Oppenheimer)” reprises the driving pulse of “Dial the Number”‘s opening, but it’s all acoustic, rhythmically crisp and dynamic, with Vandermark throaty and loquacious. After three minutes there’s an abrupt transition to a more skeletal, staccato rhythm and multiple skeins of lloopp: pure high-tones plus a wash of harpsichordal and glitching electronics – a beautiful passage of play. Vandermark’s re-entry reinvigorates the forward pulse, and at 6:30 Daisy reenters with a backbeat, then grabs a succinct solo leading to a punchy duet with Stadhouders. Vandermark then jumps in, doubled by Kurzmann’s sax-aping electronics. At just 10:55, this is the shortest cut on the album, and a tight, invigorating encapsulation of the whole.
“Window Breaking Hammer (for Rainer Werner Fassbinder)” runs to 23:36, time to stretch things out a bit. Daisy sets the tone with light kinetics, and Vandermark again prefers clarinet. Kurzmann’s bass probes purposefully, essaying different routes, different grooves, and raises some heat, but he always pulls back just before ignition. This could be frustrating, but it actually engenders a rewarding upscale of tension. A complete restart at 07:00 has sax/bass/drums apparently fully focused, but again momentum bleeds into darker brooding, the quartet wending through various digressions and soliloquies.
Kurzmann is vital here, playing scouring sustains like modulated feedback or washes of sonic texture, and toying with variegated musical distortions. At 16:47 the bass reimposes a lumbering pulse, and Vandermark’s terse vocalisations add lyricism to this newfound momentum, but despite a vigorous additional kick at 20:00 the performance thankfully remains unsettled, gravid and uneasy. The pleasure’s all in the play of tensions, with that muscular, animating pulse never far from the surface.
Ken Vandermark reeds; Christof Kurzmann electronics (loopp); Jasper Stadhouders bass; Tim Daisy drums.
RARA AVIS – Mutations / Multicellulars Mutations + DKV Trio – Past Present.
Ab Baars, Ken Vandermark, Paal Nilssen-Love Double Tandem – OX.
Sonore – Cafe OTO/London.
Cactus Truck – Seizures Palace.
Buy Before the Code from Trost Bandcamp.