Territory Band

Atlas

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In his liner notes to the Territory Band's second release, Atlas, Ken Vandermark (who composed all of the pieces and is, in practice, the leader of the group) writes bitterly about some of the critical reaction garnered by their prior release. Some listeners, presumably more attuned to Vandermark's largely jazz-based repertoire, seemed a bit at sea when trying to grasp the ideas behind this larger ensemble, one that tries to bridge the divide between improvising ensembles like Barry Guy's New Orchestra and contemporary experiments in electro-acoustic improvisation. A three-minute silence mid-composition wasn't something these critics were used to encountering. Given this (largely justifiable) diatribe, one is surprised by the relative conservatism encountered herein. Not that this is a complaint, as the compositions are quite enjoyable, but aside from the odd structural quirk, the main evidence of a drift toward free improv lies in the presence of trumpeter Axel Dörner (a holdover from the prior album) and newcomer Kevin Drumm, whose electronics sound (deliciously) imported from another world. The opening piece, "Add and Subtract," is essentially one of those unstoppable machines that Vandermark pens so well, a theme that lurches along, propelled by its own mass, solid enough that any soloist has plenty of ground to hang his hat, coat, and galoshes. But, unlike with previous works in this vein, he allows the momentum to dissipate about halfway through as things "crumble" into a meaty, grainy mix of rough-hewn sounds, Jeb Bishop's trombone skittering over layers of electronic glitches. "Neiger" was written to showcase Drumm (who isn't packing his regular guitar on this disc, instead dealing in pure electronics) and illustrates the sort of push-pull tension that Vandermark appears interested in, between jazz and non-idiomatic free improv. There are stretches of oil and water, but the listener has the impression that Vandermark understands this and is attempting to deal with it. If the results aren't always successful, at least the idea is being examined and, perhaps, lack of success is indicative of the integrity of the approach! Similarly, "Catalog" begins as scattered shards of sound not unlike your average old Music Improvisation Company release but then metamorphoses into a cello-driven ballad that wouldn't sound out of place on, say, a Henry Threadgill album. Again, the contrast creates an elastic dynamic that is at once fascinating and frustrating. So it is again with the concluding number, "Now," that begins its life as a rather lovely, slow blues before an infestation of glitches eats through the surface, ushering in sparser improvisation. One is torn between appreciating the struggle and blurting out phrases like "Fish or cut bait!" Instrumentally, the performances are first rate, with special mention going to Dörner (who once again proves himself extraordinarily adept in virtually any context), drum master Paul Lytton, and tubaist Per-Ake Holmlander. Whether it marked an advance over the previous album or not, the Territory Band remained one of Vandermark's most intriguing and, ultimately, rewarding projects, stumbles and all.

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