The Vandermark 5

Airports for Light

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The sixth album by Ken Vandermark's quintet will doubtless satisfy his steady fans, but one is forced to wonder whether he's beginning to tread water. It's a very solid effort with some meaty writing and playing, but "solid" can be only a hair's breadth away from "stolid," and it's an open question as to whether or not this band is nearing that line. One problem is that Vandermark largely confines himself to one of three attacks: the storming barnburner, the noirish ballad, or the spiky, semi-free improv. Worse, this disc is, with the arguable exception of the final cut, programmed in just that order, groups of three, one after another, lending it a more routine quality than necessary. Vandermark's own playing also suffers from this sameness; he's capable but rarely very imaginative and his basic "sound" remains on the drab side, especially when contrasted with the explosive alto of Dave Rempis, who regularly swamps his cohort in both imaginative and sheer sonic power. Along with Rempis, bassist Kent Kessler is his usual superb self (truly one of the undersung great bassists in jazz) and trombonist Jeb Bishop plays with fine wit and fluidity. New drummer Tim Daisy is a bit more problematic, his clattering sound occasionally interfering with group cohesion. As stated above, the pieces range from the propulsive machines Vandermark's made an art form out of (including a rather unfortunate attempt at funk on a number dedicated to Curtis Mayfield) to smoky, modal ballads to hunt'n'peck, spacy numbers. The first two the band accomplishes with their regular panache, though on the latter they lack the comfort level of musicians for whom this is standard language, evincing just how difficult this sort of music is to really bring off. Vandermark has far greater success in this area with his larger Territory Band, possibly due to the inclusion of several world-class improvising musicians. The closing number, "Confluence," dedicated to Sonny Rollins (a bonus disc of Rollins covers is included in some versions of this release), happily breaks free of the prior constraints, bubbling over with the joy of playing. More pieces with this sort of "sense of life" might have transformed Airports for Light from a generally enjoyable album to an outstanding one.

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