Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love, Vienna Blue Tomato, 20 November 2009

Another superb and – let’s not forget – entertaining evening of high-powered free jazz from two masters of the art. What with all the vague descriptors of power and intensity I keep reaching for in my fumbling attempts to describe why I love this music so much, it’s easy to forget how hugely enjoyable this stuff is. Watching these guys it’s hard not to break into a broad grin at the sheer audacity and confidence of it all, quite apart from the fact that they are clearly having a great time onstage themselves and that it’s utterly infectious.

Furthermore, there’s a palpable sense of involvement here as well. Bizarre as it may sound, the closest parallel I can think of is with watching your favourite football team, or (to take an example from my recent experience), watching your son take part in his first football tournament. You’re willing them on, urging them (often audibly) to ever greater heights, and when those heights are reached, you celebrate together with them. With very few exceptions (Swans and Godspeed You Black Emperor spring to mind), that kind of delirious communion between performer and audience is something I’ve never come close to experiencing at a rock concert.

Anyway, this evening saw the American saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Vandermark squaring up to Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. Vandermark’s playing ranged from swinging Ayleresque Fire Music to out-and-out free sections, via quiet lyrical passages and an arsenal of attacks on the reed which produced all manner of way-out clicking sounds. There were exhilarating sections of circular breathing as well, Vandermark proving himself the equal of Evan Parker and Anthony Braxton in his mastery of this most challenging of techniques. Whether on clarinet, tenor or baritone sax (the latter borrowed for the evening from Mats Gustafsson, fact fans), Vandermark’s performance was superbly gripping.

You couldn’t say any less than that about Nilssen-Love, either. Here’s another musician who was clearly having great fun onstage, with huge smiles lighting up his face at the beginning and end of each piece. While playing, though, he’s a study in relentlessness, his shirt getting steadily drenched in sweat as he produces an astonishing battery of percussive rhythms and dramatic textural interventions. Driving the saxophonist on to ever more frenzied bursts of manic inventiveness, Nilssen-Love shot electric sparks from his drumkit with every movement. Together, the two men touched awe-inspiring levels of energy and creativity.

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