|2 Disc Set
The 3rd release by Ken Vandermark's School Days is a double CD of studio material recorded with the Oslo quintet Atomic. Both bands have the same rhythm section of Paal Nilssen-Love on drums and Ingebrigt HÂker Flaten on bass.
One Final Note Review: Ken Vandermark's association with some of Northern Europe's most dynamic improvisers has yielded quite fruitful results over the past few years. While these collaborations are many, a few examples include the AALY Trio (with reedist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Peter Jansson and drummer Kjell Nordeson), his School Days Quintet (with trombonist Jeb Bishop, bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten, Nordeson and drum whirlwind Paal Nilssen-Love) and Free Fall (the Jimmy Giuffe-inspired trio with pianist Håvard Wiik and Håker-Flaten). Of course, Vandermark also continues to work with select members on his own projects, like group work with Gustafsson or Nilssen-Love, including the mighty Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet (now featuring Nilssen-Love in place of Hamid Drake). As a result, Vandermark has ties with Scandinavian supergroup Atomic, with a Swedish front line of reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist and trumpeter Magnus Broo and a Norwegian rhythm section of Wiik, Håker-Flaten and Nilssen-Love. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that an advocate of cross-pollination like Vandermark would be involved in the combination of two hard-hitting ensembles, Atomic and School Days.
What results on this consistently invigorating double-disc set is what one might expect from the collection of such talents—an octet that believes both in intricate compositions, as well as improvisation for a program where every member of the collective contributes a composition (with two from Ljungkvist). A unified goal emerges that welcomes vibrant, stacked and shifting horn parts to match and—at times—spar under, over and in the midst of the brimming intensity or colorizations of the crack rhythm section broadened by Kjell Nordeson's vibraphone. The compositions, many of which are multi-sectioned, engage through capricious settings that involve traditional swing realms, skronkier horn cacophony, gentle balladry, rock-solid riffing or in the case of the rhythm crew (with Vandermark's baritone frequently joining the fray), hair-raising vamps.
The proceedings begin with Ljungkvist's anthemic "W Meets A" that prospers on the resonant vamp laid down by Håker-Flaten and Nilssen-Love. The horns punctuate the theme and mix in the middle, as Wiik has his chance to shine early with delicate, tasty piano runs. Up next is Broo's "Transparent Taylor" that swings hard, allowing for the trumpeter's initial pinched-tone solo to be goosed by Wiik's punching chords and horn riffs as the momentum builds, leading to a spirited Vandermark/Nilssen-Love duet before Ljungkvist joins in to inspire the final return of the theme. Håker-Flaten's gorgeous and quite Northern European ballad, "Green Wood", is a clarinet feature where the somber mood engages an eventual horn interaction over a loose sense of time, ultimately closing with the bassist's unaccompanied playing.
Next up is Nordeson's "Ink Worm", with hornplay that kicks into high gear due to Nilssen-Love's powerful drumming and exploration of abstract terrain. Perhaps the strongest track on the disc is its closer, Fredrik Ljungkvist's "Kerosene", a multi-movement piece. What begins with stunning restraint, featuring some of the loveliest Vandermark baritone you're likely to hear (right from Mulligan and Giuffre), Håker-Flaten soon builds a four-note vamp that encourages the others (with low blasts in time from Vandermark). Bishop's horn sails freely for several minutes before the bottom drops out and an introspective Bishop-Ljungkvist (on clarinet) duet closes this side on a poignant note.
Disc two begins with Bishop's 15-minute "Conjugations", initially a clarinet foray that slides into swing mode with Wiik and Nordenson acting in tandem before the pianist takes off, eventually returning to the amassed horns. Broo also adds a typically gritty solo before Nordeson and Håker-Flaten duet, with Nilssen-Love eventually joining the jagged interplay to highlight Bishop's gutsy mute-work. Amidst the flurry of activity, Wiik announces a six-note vamp where the rhythm and horns soon join in. The framework is then set for the piece's final section with departing words from Vandermark's baritone. Nilssen-Love's "Dogdays" begins as a gentle journey before the ensemble charges forward with a brimming undercurrent that encourages the horns to duke it out amongst themselves. Nilssen-Love concludes with a Braxtonian-like march sequence, matched by the horns.
Wiik's "Light Compulsion" commences as a stunningly gorgeous, yet stark, horn gathering before ballad pace takes hold with Ljungkvist's lilting, gorgeous tenor commentary over the pianist's rich chordal structures. Wiik's performance reminds one somewhat of Miles' Second Quintet's "Fall", perhaps due to Wiik's Hancock-like expressions. The finale is Vandermark's "Bulletin (for Weegee)" that presents the reedist's summation of what this collaboration is all about. High-flying solos, churning grooves, mix-n-match horn parts, swinging directives, dancing vibe mini-melodies, rapid twists and turns, full blown blasts and distant piano calls are all delivered with verve over a 20-minute duration. As usual, Vandermark seems keenly aware of the challenge to both the participants and listeners, which results in an gripping performance.
Without a doubt, this is one of the year's best from an ensemble that, while demanding, manages to maintain one's interest throughout the entire 90-minute program.