New lineup, new textures for Vandermark 5
By Steve Greenlee, Globe Staff
What a year it has been for the Vandermark 5. The Chicago-based quintet led by Natick-bred multireedist Ken Vandermark is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but without trombonist Jeb Bishop, one of the founding members. Bishop, who left the group last summer, has been replaced with Fred Lonberg-Holm, an avant-garde cellist who has worked with Anthony Braxton and John Zorn, and his presence has instantaneously transformed the band's sound.
At the same time, the Vandermark 5 is cranking out the records, perhaps clearing out the V5.1 vault before releasing material from V5.2. Last summer we got the 12-CD set ''Alchemia," a document of the band's five-night stand in Poland. Last fall we got ''The Color of Memory," the group's eighth studio album, a recording so excellent it couldn't fit on one disc. And now the group is releasing ''Free Jazz Classics Vols. 3 and 4," a two-disc follow-up to a previous set and the final recording from the Bishop-era band. Volume 3 is all Sonny Rollins tunes. Volume 4 is all Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It's all awesome.
Boston got its first taste of Vandermark 5's new lineup Wednesday night in a packed room in Hyde Park. (As it turns out, it will be among the last concerts at the First Congregational Church -- the Artists-at-Large Gallery, and the modern improvised music series based there, have been told to find another space as of March 1, according to Tommey Seggers, who runs the gallery.)
Lonberg-Holm's presence adds a new texture to the band's sound, which is a meaty mix of swing-based bop, straight-ahead rock, and wild bursts of free improv. The cellist -- who appears to be equally comfortable with bowing, sawing, and plucking -- contributed a variety of tones that ranged from sorrowful to white-knuckle intense.
Meanwhile, Vandermark's compositions are growing ever more complex. Wednesday night the band played all originals. The first set was made up of tunes from ''The Color of Memory," rearranged with cello in mind, and the second consisted entirely of new pieces written since Lonberg-Holm's arrival. Vandermark's writing is moving away from simple structures -- rock, ballad, swing -- almost to the point where each tune is a suite unto itself, with movements and passages.
The group cranked up the voltage right away with ''Vehicle," propelled by the powerful drumming of Tim Daisy, who along with bassist Kent Kessler is the fuel that runs this machine. Lonberg-Holm, his cello amped, let fly a blistering solo, quickly announcing his presence. Vandermark blew a brawny, confident blast from the baritone sax, and Dave Rempis, the other saxophonist in the band, played nimbly, cascades of notes falling from his alto sax. With the brass removed from the quintet, the contrast between reeds is clearer: Vandermark plays with more power, while Rempis plays faster and more nimbly.
''Further From the Truth," from the second set, began as a lumbering downtempo tune, almost cartoonish in quality, and it wouldn't be a stretch to hear it as an anti-Bush/antiwar commentary, given that it reminded one of Mingus's ''Fables of Faubus," which mocked Arkansas's segregationist governor Orval Faubus. The piece grew elegiac, with Daisy tap-tap-tapping all over the drum kit while the other four instruments droned.
With his originality and talent, Vandermark, who won a MacArthur Foundation ''genius grant" in 1999, could become far more popular if he would just play straight-ahead bop and lay off his odd brew of free jazz and rock. But this guy makes music for himself; if we happen to enjoy it, well, that's nice too. Here's hoping he never develops the desire for fame or fortune.
Steve Greenlee can be reached at email@example.com.