Powerhouse Sound is another exploration in texture, dynamic, sonority and dramatic power for saxophonist and composer Ken Vandermark. Recorded in Oslo and Chicago with two different bands playing roughly the same material -- with some significant differences as well -- Vandermark brought bassist Nate McBride (Vandermark 5) with him to Norway and recorded seven new tunes. The Oslo band contained another bassist in Ingebrigt Håker Flaten (both men played electric), drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and Lasse Marhaug on electronics. In Chicago, in addition to McBride, Jeff Parker plays guitar, and John Herndon is the drummer. There seems to be an obvious nod to Ornette Coleman's In All Languages here, where he played roughly the same music with both an electric and an acoustic band. There are similarities to be sure, but the actual form and perhaps even the function of the tunes change as they are performed by these two groups. The Oslo versions are seemingly constructed with a kind of circular rhythm which everything evolves from and comes back to, but sonic noise disintegration is built into the breaks, whether those breaks are at the beginning -- as they are in the nearly 12 minute "Shocklee" (written for Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee) -- in the middle, as in "King to Crown (For King Tubby)" -- or near the end, where it's done much more subtly in "Coxsone (For Coxsone Dodd)." In some tracks, such as "2-1-75 (For Miles Davis)" one can find the continuity of the beat on the bassists, one ever so slightly playing that rhythm and the other in the fray of sound created by the band. All of this said, it doesn't matter which tune is being played -- and these most certainly are tunes, not blowing exercises -- the ensemble is plugged into a particular rhythmic concept (or polyrhythmic concept, as it were) where funk, Afro-beat, reggae, dub, grooved-out electronic jazz and even rock & roll all meet -- check out "New Dirt (For the Stooges)," that closes the Oslo set, where spooky notions of improvisations and inverted bass languages converge into something truly resembling a song, albeit one within a broken syntax -- they converge at the place where they all begin: rhythm.
Tonality, sonorities and ambient noise are all used in effect to serve the broken beat and see where it leads before returning to its place of origin. In many ways the more conventional band with Parker and Herndon is more exciting. Given that there is less of a backdrop, Parker is relied on to be a kind of tonal sounding board. Rhythmic approach and communication between Herndon and McBride is lockstep, it finds a groove even in the freest moments and allows Parker to paint as Vandermark works on both melodic and harmonic fronts to become, in many ways, another rhythm instrument. He ties harmonic agreement to the grooves as it were, despite the free improvisation. For his own part, Parker is allowed to roam free, to follow sounds down winding paths and introduce new ones as he sees fit. Vandermark blows inside the grooves, always pointing to those chunky breakbeats played by Herndon.
"Old Dictionary (For Bernie Worrell)," which opens the second disc, is a powerful introduction to the tight, on-the-dime playing this band is capable of. They combine tunes for the second disc, which is one of the more notable differences between the two. Exercises are named "King to Crown Pt. 1/Acid Scratch Pt. 2," or the medley of that second part of "Acid Scratch Pt. 2" is married to "Shocklee" and "Exit-Salida," and even the closing track "New Dirt" is mobbed up with "King to Crown, Pt. 2." For the cynics, these are not arbitrary assignations; nor are they done for the sake of mere artifice. They sound more like guideposts to an entirely new composition coming from the marriage of two or three earlier works, where rhythms shift and shape what comes from being informed by what has passed -- much in the same way Miles Davis played in the '70s with his electric bands. Improvisations are not dictated but decided on because of the groove quotient inherent in their individual parts. Vandermark finds a natural tension between the constancy of circular rhythm broken by a meta-textual musico-linguistic syntax of individual statements made from the conception of groove that moves out toward something else and finds itself home again in the primary communication at its center. The entire perception changes because of the interaction and the slippery, broken notion of those forms within it.
Despite the more conventional lineup of the second disc, both sides are challenging and break out of the jazz box without ever drubbing it in favor of either simply free-blowing or avant-garde for its own sake. There is a very heady sense of discipline on both recordings and they need, if anything, to be played back to back to fully take in all the "newness" being put on offer here. Vandermark is one of the very best we have, and Powerhouse Sound brings an entirely new discussion to the table.