OFN Home

FME (Vandermark / McBride / Nilssen-Love)
Chicago IL, 3 December 2003

On a Wednesday evening in early December, Ken Vandermark brought his FME Ensemble to Chicago's venerable hole in the wall, The Empty Bottle. Although not originally planned as an improvised music venue per se, Vandermark and critic/producer John Corbett have been curating a series at this Ukrainian Village spot for a few years now. Not only has the arrangement brought in top-notch guests from all over the globe, but also has provided Vandermark with a space to workshop his projects in front of the public (the Tuesday night gigs, among others).

Unfortunately for his hometown, Vandermark's growing fame abroad has been tough on regular visitors to the Bottle, which can be a fantastic place to see a show. Despite the usual concert-going negatives, such as an excess of smoke and the obnoxious sorts that seem unable to zip it during the performance (especially on the quieter numbers), the Bottle allows the performers a relaxed atmosphere that encourages an intimate view for the attendees. Indeed, the musicians perform right on the floor, on the same level as the crowd (and not on the risers, which are saved for "big name" shows).

As for FME, it was the ensemble's kickoff of a ten-date North American tour and as such, the group was charged up and ready to play. It is perhaps Vandermark's most "free" collective, an ode to FMP (Free Music Productions) and SME (Spontaneous Music Ensemble) that fittingly focuses on sound exploration and abstract moods. However, before one might think that the approach is balls to the wall energy or pure abstraction, the various personalities combine into a singular mix of free-time principles and jagged vamp-based structures.

What was particularly exciting was the fact that drummer Paal Nilssen-Love was present, after sitting out the group's last tour due to illness. While Vandermark 5 and Triage drummer Tim Daisy did his best to fill the Norwegian's huge shoes, Nilssen-Love brings a special dynamism to the proceedings that is integral to this unit. Rounding out the trio, of course, is Vandermark's frequent collaborator and old Beantown cohort, bassist Nate McBride. As for the performance specifics, the group presented two sets at around forty-five minutes per set, where a continuous flow of music was encouraged, despite a brief break for air midway through each offering.

The group opened the first set with a new piece "Kiosk", an energized free-swing number with unison lines from McBride and Vandermark at its inception. After a few moments, Nilssen-Love hit his stride, alternating between free rhythms and variable patterns. Vandermark soon soared into the stratosphere with blazing altissimo runs to match Nilssen-Love's whirlwind drumming, a signal that this journey was to be thrilling. After the initial wallop, a bass/clarinet duet emerged, encouraging the investigation of space, forged through McBride's skilled arco musings. The light once again shone on Nilssen-Love, who demonstrated his dexterity and timbral investigations during a solo piece ("E Corce") that set up the excellent "Stran", both of which appeared on the group's excellent Live At The Glenn Miller Cafe release on Okka Disk. McBride's rubbery bass and Nilssen-Love's groove encouraged the eventual eruptive discourse impelled by Vandermark's poignant tenor work, sparring with the drummer's cowbell accents and the bassist's spidery feeds. The wistful tones of "Mir" soon followed, with a focus on melody urged by Vandermark and McBride, with the latter taking an extended bass solo. "Kopstoot" concluded the set with Vandermark's caustic baritone lines going head to head with Nilssen-Love in a rapturous exchange that left the crowd with their mouths open.

The second course of the evening was served up in a similar fashion, emphasizing the contrast between unrestrained and fervent configurations, Vandermark's reed arsenal and the symbiotic connection between these players. A textural piece began the set that emphasized Vandermark's emotive bass clarinet. On the other hand, the next piece was an intense baritone sax/drums duet, similar to "Kopstoot", that eventually brought McBride's flexible and dancing arco work to the spotlight. Changing course yet again, McBride and Vandermark (on clarinet) engaged in a melodic interchange that was followed by the elongated crescendo of a tenor-driven group romp ("Sono"). Finally, in contrast to the intensity that had come before, the show concluded with a melancholic piece guided to its concluding moments via Vandermark's sonorous bass clarinet.

In sum, FME demonstrated a fine display of high-level interaction, with a fitting amalgamation of various influences that favored freewheeling vigor and subdued instances of investigation. This is indeed one of Vandermark's finest groups, which is saying something.