Ken Vandermark & Paal Nilssen-Love, Geneva AMR, 21 September 2018

“We can’t see you, but we can feel you,” announced Ken Vandermark at the start of his recent show with Paal Nilssen-Love in Geneva, his view of the audience hampered by bright stage lights. The concert took place the night after a gig at my old stamping ground, the Blue Tomato in Vienna, a place where (as a quick look at the archives of this now dormant blog shows) I saw Vandermark and Nilssen-Love play at least three times, in 2009, 2011 and 2014

With the Tomato, and indeed Vienna itself, now a rapidly fading memory, it was a great pleasure to renew my acquaintance with this most bracing and explosive of duos. AMR may be a less cosy and convivial venue than the Tomato, and the audience numbered around 30-40 rather than the hundred or so that regularly pack out the Tomato. Still, there was still a palpable sense of expectation in the air, with Vandermark’s horns and the house drumkit set out on the floor of the room – no stage here, not even a low one.

Right from the start Vandermark and Nilssen-Love made their presence felt in no uncertain terms, with a barnstorming duo passage that saw Vandermark’s weighty tenor interlocking with the Norwegian’s breathless percussion. Firing off volleys of sax blurts that resolved into glinting shards of melody, Vandermark summoned the ghosts of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, embracing them with an energy and vision entirely his own. The Chicagoan reached for his clarinet, tracing a slow, sad blues that led into a needle-sharp passage of circular breathing and then an almost perky, European folk dance section – a transition that made perfect sense given the way Vandermark, more than any other musician, seems to bridge the American free jazz and European free improvisation traditions.

Battling it out for supremacy like two cats in a bag, the duo opened the second set with a furious ensemble passage that saw Nilssen-Love turn to brushes and an arsenal of hand-held percussion instruments. An engrossing drum solo followed, the Norwegian anchoring his playful inventiveness with riveting snare, toms and cymbal work. Back on tenor, the saxophonist melted the air with cascading riffs and analytic grooves, and a gorgeous solo to round off the main set. A short encore saw Vandermark raise the roof on clarinet, matched for intensity by Nilssen-Love’s hyperactive presence behind the kit.

With the show over and the duo packing up, the house manager threw open the windows to let in the sounds of Paquis, the seedy and bustling district of Geneva in which AMR is situated. Another extraordinary performance from these two gifted musicians.