Two variations on a theme at a packed-out Vortex in Dalston. Both the Vandermark Five and Atomic are long-running quintets who mix more straight-up scored jazz compositions with sections of fiery free improvisation, and neither of them play in the UK often enough for my liking. Given their relative celebrity, it wasn’t even obvious who the headliner would be – I figured the Vandermark 5 would shade it, but it was they who took the stage first, much to their evident amusement – I guess being the warmup act is something that doesn’t happen too often to Ken Vandermark.
Which is unsurprising given just how tight, powerful and boundary-pushing this band are. Aside from saxophonist Vandermark himself (doubling up on more restrained clarinet), the importance of Fred Lonberg-Holm can’t be understated – his cello and electronics gives the band a most unconventional edge. They kicked off with their song for Gyorgy Ligeti, “Friction”, arco bass and cello drone leading straight into the first blistering Vandermark solo of the night, real heavyweight Trane-style improvisation. They all locked together in what almost sounded like a post-rock riff before a loud, squally finale. Aside from this, most of the pieces they played were new ones, worked up their European tour, stately ensemble pieces meeting some tight funk and some avant-garde electronics. Set closer “Leap Revisited” really highlighted Lonberg-Holm’s work, transforming his cello almost into a howling and wailing electric guitar (check this clip from earlier in the tour), before the band knotted together around a sick bass/drum groove from Kent Kessler and Tim Daisy. It ended with the two horns dancing around each other with extraordinary deftness. And then huge applause.
While I can’t recall the last time Atomic played here, I’m pretty familiar with the work of two of the group members. Drummer Paal Nilsen-Love and bass player Ingebrigt Håker Flaten are the rhythm section for Smalltown Superjazzz’s Scandinavian sensations The Thing, where they play behind Mats Gustafsson’s lung-shredding saxophone excursions. Here they were forced into more conventional areas, but no matter how straight the lines, Nilsen-Love always seemed able to find unexpected angles. He spent the entirety of one tune disrupting the piece’s natural rhythm by sticking tight to the off-beat, while a later piece saw him playing at twice, maybe even four times the speed you’d expect, forcing a momentum. The soloing perhaps only rarely touched the heights of earlier in the evening, Håker Flaten almost pulling the strings of his bass in one huge, thwonking episode, but there was much to admire still. Not least of all in an Arkestra-esque finale, trumpet and saxophone playing a repetitive riff over the deepest of grooves, one that was ringing in my head all the way home.