Downbeat review by Bill Meyer

Side A – A New Margin Clean Feed (CF 235)
4 Stars
Last time I checked his website, Ken Vandermark had 18 different configurations going. Why so many? One obvious reason is that he thrives on variety, and the peripatetic Chicagoan accomplishes very different things playing solo, in the brutally amplified quartet Lean Left, and with his multi-national big band, the Resonance Ensemble. But another is that he is quite conscious of the way exchanging one player for another can so change a group that it’s not the same anymore. He’s played for a decade with Norwegian pianist Håvard Wiik in the trio Free Fall, which also includes bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten. Side A swaps Håker Flaten for drummer Chad Taylor, a New Yorker with Chicago roots, and with that change comes an entirely different sensibility. Free Fall is a chamber group, indebted to the exacting explorations of timbre and nuance laid out on Jimmy Giuffre’s album of the same name; Side A is a composer’s collective that gravitates to strong melodies and stronger rhythms. New man, new concept, new content — it’s a new band.

With three composers each pursuing diverse concerns, Side A’s debut CD never stays in one place for long, or evenfor a song. Vandermark’s “Boxer” bridges the gap between Bach and Monk, with Taylor’s drumming issuing a TonyWilliams-like undercurrent of dissent throughout. Wiik’s “The Kreuzberg Variations” exemplifies the eclecticism of the Berlin neighborhood after which it is named by shifting from lighter-than-air improv to Philip Glass-like repetition to a full-bore blowout in just seven minutes. Taylor’s “Trued Right” punctuates a stately, McCoy Tyner-esque theme with a Latin piano flourish underpinned by a lockstep beat. But even the most abrupt shifts never feel awkward. In an age when anyone with a computer can hear anything, it would belazy not to deal with all that information out there. The trio makes its contrasting elements cohere into pieces as complex and challenging as 21st century life; this is what jazz sounds like right now.

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