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Nashville Scene Inside and Outside

Two jazz saxophonists push the envelope, but in different directions

By Ron Wynn

MAY 8, 2000:  Saxophonists Greg Osby and Ken Vandermark both delight in shattering assumptions about 21st century jazz musicians, although they do so from vastly different perspectives. Now firmly established on the New York scene, Osby is a sterling alto saxophonist with roots in blues and funk, while Vandermark's music is about as outside as modern jazz gets. Both musicians' newest efforts continue a pattern of stretching the envelope, even as they each move in widely diverging directions.

Unpredictability has been Osby's stock-in-trade ever since he emerged as a member of Steve Coleman's M-Base Ensemble during the early '80s. He's played in mainstream and free situations and has also cut such controversial hip-hop-flavored dates as Man-Talk for Moderns, Vol. X and 3-D Lifestyles. He was once among the most outspoken critics of what he termed "retro" jazz and drew fire for denouncing youthful players who filled their albums with show tunes and standards. In recent years, Osby has toned down the rhetoric, but he still enjoys surprising critics and audiences by switching back and forth between conventional jazz and straight pop or R&B.

Osby's The Invisible Hand, his 14th Blue Note release, features a lineup that's unorthodox even by his past standards. The disc marks the first time heralded guitarist Jim Hall and equally acclaimed pianist Andrew Hill have ever worked together, yet Hall's nimble, finely framed accompaniment and solos don't clash with Hill's probing phrases. Hill and Hall, along with bassist Scott Colley and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, provide the harmonic glue and rhythmic foundation, while Osby and saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas bring the fire. The former's splashy lines and riffs are more than matched by the latter's rumbling counterphrases.

The unusual sextet shifts from crisp deliveries of Hill's "Ashes" and "Tough Love" into reworkings of anthems like "Nature Boy" and "Indiana" into careful renderings of Osby's "With Son" and "The Watcher." Osby and Thomas have both matured as soloists; they're more conscious of mood, time, and tension than they were on earlier releases, and their playing offers much more than just honks and gimmicks. That sense of balance plays out over the whole disc: The Invisible Hand offers traditional jazz melodies to satisfy conservative listeners while also stretching out enough to keep more adventurous listeners engaged.

Until last summer, Ken Vandermark had little name recognition outside of Chicago, despite heading several groups and having appeared on more than 50 recordings. Then he received a MacArthur "genius" grant of $265,000, putting him in a category with such jazz icons as Max Roach, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Anthony Braxton. In spite of this, he has received absolutely no nibbles from major labels. That's because his music is fiercely noncommercial; it's aggressive, loud, confrontational, and often without any easily discernible rhythmic pattern. It's also superbly executed and exciting, as original as anything in the jazz world right now.

The Vandermark Sound in Action Trio's Design in Time makes no concessions to accessibility. Not only does the leader eschew piano, his threesome doesn't even have a bassist--it consists simply of Vandermark's blazing tenor and clarinet backed by two drummers. Although Vandermark only wrote four of the CD's 10 tunes, the other songs are hardly familiar. These include searing renditions of Sun Ra's "Sounds and Something Else," Albert Ayler's "Angels," and Ornette Coleman's "Law Years," plus a bombastic reworking of Don Cherry's "The Thing" and a version of Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys" that makes the original seem conservative by comparison.

Vandermark can play gently on occasion, but he's primarily a slasher. He cites Eric Dolphy among his prime influences, and you can hear it in the deep, lower-register growls and moans he gets on clarinet. His saxophone playing echoes the bluesy, big-toned inflections of fellow Chicago greats Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons, though he's much further out in his approach.

Without any secondary or supporting instruments, drummers Robert Barry (a Sun Ra vet) and Tim Mulvenna perform double, sometimes triple duty. They lay down waves of beats and accents, always driving the songs and sometimes subtly directing them. Other times, Barry or Mulvenna becomes a second solo voice, while Vandermark rides atop the barrage provided by the other drummer. With the possible exception of Coleman's "Feet Music," the compositions on Design in Time frequently recall the free jazz of the mid-'60s, when musicians like Coleman, Ayler, John Coltrane, and Pharaoh Sanders played unfettered sound montages that delighted some and outraged many others. The playing ranges from dazzling to astonishing; it's so outside and so intense that its appeal will surely be limited to avant-garde fans.

Still, Vandermark and Osby both deserve high praise for veering away from the tried-and-true. Osby's work has a much greater chance of gaining wider exposure than Vandermark's, but neither should be ignored.

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