The Vandermark 5 put on a hell of a show last night at Jammin’ Java in Virginia. I’m glad I got to hear the recording of their show in Montreal, because I was better prepared for what was to come: something much more “out” than even their show a year ago (when Fred Lonberg-Holm and his cello madness had already been added to the lineup). It’s clear that after a year and a half or so, Lonberg-Holm has been integrated into the group’s sound seamlessly, and his influence is felt much more now than it was a year ago. The compositions are now further afield from traditional jazz, Lonberg-Holm plays a more central role in the group’s sound, and the quintet now often breaks into mini-ensembles in a really neat way. Also, sometimes Lonberg-Holm just rocks out and plays heavy power-chord riffs that wouldn’t be out of place on a metal album.
In fact, my favorite pieces are when Lonberg-Holm does just that: Vandermark and company opened their second set with “Some, Not All” from A Discontinuous Line, which includes a headbanger’s riff in the middle section over which Dave Rempis goes absolutely nuts on alto. Powerful on the studio album, this piece is not surprisingly even better live, and Rempis’ solo and Lonberg-Holm’s riffing was a thrilling highlight of the show for me. Another highlight was the final piece of the second set, a new one called “Desireless,” a tension-and-no-release affair in which, again, Lonberg-Holm holds down the rhythm with some rock-ready riffing while Vandermark and Rempis run wild over the top. This piece had me ready to leap out of my seat, but instead of ending with a bang, the group carefully winds down towards an anticlimactic finale — the end effect of which was that, for probably half an hour after the show, I was completely wired with pent-up energy. Finally, another new piece called “Compass Shatters Magnet,” which closed the first set, went through a similar high-tension section but gave the audience the luxury of release, building from almost nothing into cathartic soloing, and then finishing up with the band pummelling the club with an anthemic, percussive melody anchored by Vandermark’s unmistakable baritone.
Much of what they played last night was new; of all the band’s previously-released stuff, only “Some, Not All,” “Reciprocal,” and “Convertible” made it to the setlist. It’s interesting to see that they are no longer playing anything written in the pre-Lonberg-Holm era, and very indicative of how the cellist has really been brought into the fold as an essential part of the group’s new sound. In fact, a great new piece was “Further From the Truth,” a ballad that featured Lonberg-Holm playing much more lyrically than usual, atop a walking bassline and a steady pulse from Tim Daisy on the drums.
In every possible way this show was superior to the one I saw these guys put on last year. More out, more adventurous, tighter, with Lonberg-Holm better integrated; and Dave Rempis was just on fire all night. Sadly, the crowd was kind of lame (though decently sizable); I wonder if this group would do better to play a little closer to DC, where there’s probably a slightly larger fan base. Jammin’ Java is half an hour away from the city, and given that I spent half an hour with a friend digging my car out from all the ice that’s been covering the area for the past few days, I imagine some people just didn’t bother to make the trek.