I've been part of several tribute/homage/songbook projects, notably with Zimbabwe Nkenya, doing an Ornette Coleman project, a mid-'60s Miles quintet project, part of a Monk tribute; now the main thing happening musically for me is the Miles Davis electric project. So I've been involved with this experience where someone (maybe even me) loves the music of so and so enough to get a group together, try it out, do some of the favorite pieces. With some of Zim's projects it was a drag, ultimately, because he wanted to do OC's songs, he wanted to do the tougher material too from the MD quintet, some very nuanced Monk tunes too, and where were the musicians? Myself included! I always felt completely behind the curve there, exposed, unable to develop a statement of my own and left either poorly imitating Higgins, Blackwell, Roach, Jones (man, Broadway Blues is a bitch!) Williams or, well, generally, lost. With the Miles electric project it's different, because that grew out of players I had already heard here: DJ's, live and pre-produced samples, guitarists, keyboard, bass. It happened more organically, the sounds and approaches already fit before we started to shape pieces like Honky Tonk, Yesternow, Black Satin, etc. The end result is sometimes our versions are flat out imitative...how close can we get to some of the suspense of Yesternow, for example...sometimes the versions, even of the same tune, are unrecognizable. It's filtered through a kind of freedom that was not available on the OC or Miles quintet projects, because the mastery and the understanding was not in the ensemble, was not in the sound. The tunes there were out of reach, some kind of Platonic eidos that we could only genuflect at the base of or stumble around within, offering our pale stabs, no matter how much we loved the originals.
The Vandermark 5's "Free Jazz Classics Vol. 3: Six for Rollins" sounds like this to me. Both forced and lost. The format is head-solo-solo-solo-head, the arrangements seem desultory, and the overall effect lacks so many of the qualities of Sonny Rollins' music: daring, humor, space, fluidity, elan. The playing is superb, yet another example of unequivocally fine musicianship standing still, running in place, sounding contained and distant, even when the bar lines drop. It's as if the music is a museum piece, a simulacrum, with the homage not reverent enough or all too reverent, I can't decide which. There's a spirit joyless and formulaic in it. I love hearing Vandermark's bari, Jeb Bishop's bone, Kent Kessler's bass and Dave Rempis in particular (shades of Dolphy, Roscoe Mitchell...he is in my opinion the best soloist on the date), but Tim Daisy's drums are so literal. It's jazz drumming on music that I can't help but hear with Roach, Jones, etc. The elasticity of the tempos on The Bridge make me wonder-- are we hearing people play or think about playing while they play? The device itself is not at fault, it's the way it clobbers me over the head.
But for me the signature problem piece is East Broadway Rundown. The original of this recording has long been one of my all time favorite recorded performances in all of jazz, period. It somehow manages to be hilarious, ominous, introspective, playful, pandimensional, inside, outside, abstract, gutbucket, splatteringly free yet stompingly funky, all at once. The line itself is a deceptively simple, seemingly throwaway bit of classic Rollins-- conversational, arch, inscrutable, with a recursive jumpiness that doesn't take itself too seriously and with a hilarious switch to the major in its raggy tag. The best thing about the Vandermark 5 version is hearing Rollins' line. The rest of it just misses me.
I don't know any of the other work of the Vandermark 5 and I'm not qualified to say much about Vol. 4, Free Kings, based on Rashaan Roland Kirk's compositions, as I am way behind on my Kirk.
But the larger questions for me: why bring the repertory idea to so-called free jazz? And why Rollins? Rollins as sound innovator, structural innovator, one of a kind and absolutely original-- no contest. But free jazz? I'm not opposed, I just need more of a conversation around that. Why the self-consciousness in the packaging, the marketing, the use of the questionable phrase "Free Jazz Classics?" I wonder-- who is the audience for this music? Not that there is necessarily one audience.
In the liner notes by Vandermark he concludes with two very strange paragraphs:
"Maybe investigating the groundwork for the improvised music from the 1960's and 70's taught me that it was time to get off the shoulders of those artists in order to look in another direction.
Maybe the point has come when it's necessary to realize that the only music worth playing is happening now."
These statements seem simultaneously so thoroughly arrogant and benighted to me that I'm left (almost) speechless. The only thing I have to say right now about the last sentence is...when Monk played Duke's music, when Rollins played I Can't Get Started, when the Art Ensemble played Zombie, when Mal Waldron and Steve Lacy played A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, was that happening now?