Avant garde with a funk back beat

Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul
Atavistic Worldwide, 2002


Pawing through our music collection looking for something for the kitchen boombox this week, I was pretty much coming up with bupkis. Most of what caught my eye, I’d already written about. Some things I wasn’t in the mood for right now. And more than a few things, I hate to admit, gave me real what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-when-I-bought-this moments.

Public libraries to the rescue! I admitted to library geekdom last week. What can I say? They come through. I popped into the newish Bucktown-Wicker Park branch of the Chicago Public Library near my office and perused their miniscule but eclectic and well chosen collection of CDs. And I found this.

Ken Vandermark to the rescue! From the very opening of the first track, Back of a Cab, I knew I had stumbled onto something good. At the end of the last track, I was just as convinced.

I’ve written about this reed-playing genius [he was a MacArthur Fellow in 1999] in the past. By his own count, Vandermark has been involved with and/or led more than 30 projects or groups.

Spaceways Inc. is a classic jazz trio—sax [and occasionally clarinet], bass and drums. But what they play blows right past classic jazz. This is funk-driven free jazz, shaped by reggae, rhythm and soul. As John Corbett puts it in the liner notes, the trio whips “back and forth between nasty, back-beaten funk and swinging, exploratory jazz.” So unlike some of Vandermark’s more abstract projects, the music on Version Soul stays firmly rooted in jazz, even at its most experimental.

I’m generally not a fan of jazz trios—they’re usually too much front man with drums and bass. Other than the occasional solo, the drums and bass are encouraged to lurk in the shadows while the front man does all the heavy lifting. This can get real monotonous real quick. In Spaceways Inc., everyone’s an equal partner. Drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Nate McBride are right out front, nice and loud, mixing it up with Vandermark as he goes from tenor and baritone sax to Bb and bass clarinet. The album is full of true collaboration, improvised give and take, and the sound is richer for it.

Vandermark composed six of the tracks on this disk; the remaining three are by McBride, another example of the collaborative nature of the group and of Version Soul.

If you’re a jazz fan ready to dip your toe into the avant garde end of the pool, this is an excellent place to start. And if you’re already into avant garde jazz, dive in.

Back to Blue Kitchen


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