Ken Vandermark/Philipp Wachsmann/Paul Lytton, Vienna Blue Tomato, 17 February 2011

Ken Vandermark is always a delight to watch and listen to, especially in the intimate surroundings of the Blue Tomato. Here he was in a trio I hadn’t heard before (a.k.a. CINC), with violinist Philipp Wachsmann and drummer Paul Lytton. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Lytton play for the first time, thanks to his long association with Evan Parker. As I’ve mentioned before, the Parker/Lytton/Barry Guy Live at the Vortex album on Emanem was my first ever venture into the world of free improvisation, and has been a firm favourite of mine ever since. I still haven’t seen that trio play, though, an omission I very much hope gets rectified someday.

CINC, though, are a very different proposition. While still fully improvised, the music seemed to have more in common with AMM (whose John Tilbury guested with CINC in London recently) than with the kind of pyrotechnics I’ve come to associate with Vandermark in groups such as the all-reeds trio Sonore and his exceptional duo with Paal Nilssen-Love. This music was characterized by quietness, small gestures and a sense of glacial calm occasionally broken by flurries of microscopic activity.

Lytton spent much of the set with his head bowed, locked into the reticence of his interventions, while Wachsmann’s presence on violin was equally modest and inconspicuous. Starting off on clarinet, Vandermark was later to trade his initial unobtrusiveness for a more testing and less rational approach on tenor sax. As is the way with such master improvisers, his partners went every step of the way with him, Wachsmann in particular laying down some beautifully deep and resonant drones reminiscent of Tony Conrad. The set as a whole was a timely reminder that free improvisation can be provisional and exploratory without losing any of its power to captivate.

Didi Kern & Philipp Quehenberger, Vienna Shelter, 7 June 2011

Nice to catch a gig at Shelter again. I hadn’t been there for over two years, since checking it out for the Time Out guide, and was relieved to discover that nothing much has changed there in the meantime. Guinness and Strongbow are still on draught, the table football is still there and so is the pinball machine. Not that I was there to play retro games, since Kern and Quehenberger were lined up to make a holy, disciplined racket on drums and synths. And speaking of retro, it seems as though this duo have released their first album on cassette only in an edition of 99 copies which is already sold out. Spare copy, anyone? And maybe you could provide me with something to play it on at the same time. I still haven’t heard that Peter Rehberg cassette I bought a year or two ago.

This was the first time I had heard this duo. Quehenberger was new to me as well, although Kern was known to me from his work with Heaven And, Bulbul and Broken Heart Collector as well as his one-off appearance backing Jandek in 2009. On this occasion he dominated proceedings through an extraordinary barrage of polyrhythmic drumming. Switching with ease between forceful anchored rhythms and out-and-out free sections, Kern made the stage his own to such an extent that Quehenberger at times struggled to make his presence felt. The keyboardist kept things bubbling along nicely enough with attractive riffs and melodies, but Kern’s playing was so intensely fluid and total that there often seemed little room for a second instrument. On the other hand, the physicality of Quehenberger’s approach – playing as though hardwired to the keyboard, practically dancing to the insane reach of Kern’s percussive attack – came as a welcome antithesis to the stereotypical image of the immobile synth man prodding sullenly away.

For the encores the duo were joined by saxophonist Marco Eneidi, leader of the Neu New York/Vienna Institute of Improvised Music, the weekly free jazz blowout at which both Kern and Quehenberger are regular guests. Eneidi’s astringent blasts brought a vivid extra dimension to the music and seemed to lead the keyboard player towards harder, heavier modes of activity. With the warm textures of Quehenberger’s analogue synthesizers melting blissfully into Kern’s infinite rhythms, the duo’s navigation of inner space was as mesmerising as it was heroic.