Led by Ken Vandermark, Made to Break Pushes the Free-Music Envelope

Saturday at Conundrum Music Hall
By Patrick Wall
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Made to Break | photo by Cesar Merino

By the time Ornette Coleman released his 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come, a watershed moment in the genesis of forward-thinking free music, jazz was beginning to fracture. Some four years after the death of bebop godfather Charlie Parker, fissures started to emerge. A half-century and a whole host of new influences and instruments later, and jazz is a mystifying catch-all moniker for a wide range of sounds and styles. For some, jazz is Jelly Roll Morton. For others, John Zorn.

“It’s funny, this word jazz,” says Ken Vandermark. “For me, I see jazz as this open methodology and not a stylistic thing. For me, Miles Davis’ electric period, that’s still jazz. It’s just the music’s gone in another direction. Because it needs to.”

What: Made to Break
Where: Conundrum Music Hall, 626 Meeting St.
When: 9 p.m., Saturday, April 26
Price: $12 ($10 advance)
More Info: conundrum.us

Vandermark, for his part, has been pushing jazz in exciting directions for decades. A fixture in Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene since the early ’90s, Vandermark’s earned critical praise for his myriad and eclectic ensembles — from the (relatively) conventional free-jazz outfit Vandermark 5 to his zealous improv duos with Tim Daisy to headier groove-oriented ensembles like Spaceways Incorporated, Bridge 61 and Powerhouse Sound.

But Vandermark’s latest band might be his furthest-reaching: Made to Break, an acoustic-electric ensemble that features frequent collaborator Daisy, electronics manipulator Christof Kurzmann and electric bassist Jasper Stadhouders, who also plays with the Dutch improv group Cactus Truck.

The musicians are all top-flight improvisers, but it’s Vandermark’s modular compositional framework that’s most ambitious. For each piece of music Made to Break performs, there are distinct scripted elements. Before every performance, each of the pieces of music is organized into a kind of set list, but the way that the improvisers move between and within the pieces is completely improvised.

Think of it like a set of Legos without instructions: The musicians have the building blocks, but they don’t know how they’re going to be assembled or in what order. This system gives Made to Break an almost unprecedented flexibility and immediacy.

“We have a freedom to really restructure every night,” says Daisy. “It brings out our strengths and our diverse approaches to improvisation. It gives the ensemble that dynamic and spontaneous energy.”

That energy is readily apparent on February’s Cherchez La Femme LP, which ebbs and flows from viciously grooving funk to eerie electronic drone, often within the same song. Daisy understates his considerable counter-rhythmic gifts, creating discreet pockets that allow Vandermark and Stadhouders room to execute their provocative give-and-take. Kurzmann lends atmospheric color, contributing buzzing drones and watery swatches of noise. But he also processes sound in real-time, looping snippets of saxophones to mirror Vandermark’s bending barrage or to emphasize Stadhouders’ rumbling thunder. Kurzmann doesn’t just comment on the proceedings, he participates.

“[Kurzmann] really is extremely integral to the success of the music, because he’s as inside of it as we are,” Daisy explains.

The quartet’s wondrously elastic tension largely leans on some decidedly un-jazz influences, in particular deep funk and British post-punk — Vandermark cites both The Fall and Wire as inspirations; Daisy notes the impact of The Ex and The Buzzcocks. The resulting emphasis on spiky grooves and rhythms combined with Kurzmann’s electronic manipulations pushes Made to Break outside of the harmonic melodic confines of what’s traditionally considered jazz. The group explores textural and rhythmic trajectories, veering far from the free-jazz languages the players often explore.

“That pushing, that trying to break through boundary lines and push to the edge of things, that’s connected to the whole idea of this band,” Vandermark says, conceding that this might not fit everyone’s idea of jazz.

“I think there will be people who hear Made to Break and say, ‘Oh, that’s not jazz,’” he concludes. “But I think the better question is, is it good music?”

Let us know what you think: Email music@free-times.com.

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