Design in Time
From concept to execution, Design in Time is a visionary marvel, an album that pays homage to jazz innovators as it steps boldly into the genre's future. The maiden release by Sound in Action, a Chicago trio led by Ken Vandermark, Design presents the young sax/clarinet whiz accompanied only by the explosive percussion work of two drummers on a set that mixes avant-garde staples with four sterling Vandermark originals. Rather than another experiment in tuneless minimalism, the album is an energetic, often gorgeous mélange that blends the avant-garde with bebop traditionalism and establishes Vandermark as one of jazz's unique new voices.
Not that he's a greenhorn: Vandermark has worked with several Windy City groups, most notably the NRG Ensemble, Steam, and Witches and Devils, where he held his own with such contemporary hotshots as Mars Williams and Joe McPhee. With Sound in Action, Vandermark has enlisted Sun Ra Arkestra alumnus Robert Barry and Tim Mulvenna, a young drummer who has served time in Steam, the Vandermark 5, and the Chicago Bridge Unit. Together this threesome demonstrates a versatility and sonic depth that belies their sparse instrumentation. Ornette Coleman is feted here with three ace covers -- "Law Years," "Feet Music," and "Peace," each of which receives lovingly loose treatment from the trio. The songs are stripped to their melodic frameworks, then carefully rebuilt, with Barry and Mulvenna working subtly at their kits (which are helpfully mixed into the right and left channels respectively) as Vandermark soars both within and beyond the tunes, offering a blazing assault of notes here and light flourishes there and always pushing the percussionists to the outer boundaries of rhythm.
Elsewhere Sound in Action pays fitting homage to Albert Ayler ("Angels"), Don Cherry ("The Thing"), Thelonious Monk ("Green Chimneys"), and Sun Ra ("Sounds and Something Else"). It's Vandermark's original work, though, that underpins the brilliance of this oddly instrumented trio's debut. "One More Once," constructed atop a quasi-martial pair of drum figures, finds Vandermark honking with one foot in the barrelhouse history of Jay McNeely and the other in the out-there territory of Coleman, Coltrane, and others, leaving plenty of room for the propulsive calisthenics of Barry, to whom the song is dedicated. "Well Suited" is a rainy-night ballad with ride cymbals and smoky, contemplative sax establishing a slinky, nocturnal ambiance. "Top Shelf" and "Cut to Fit" are the set's highlights. They're a pair of screwball boppers that swing like mad, with Barry and Mulvenna crashing and tumbling in artful unison as Vandermark, playing clarinet on the latter, pokes around at melodies that conjure up the ghosts of his influences yet ring as true and clever as anything they produced. Given the compositional company he chose to keep on Design in Time, that's a hell of an accomplishment. -- John Floyd