logo   Caffeine (OD12002)
Musicians Jim Baker — piano
Steve Hunt — percussion
Ken Vandermark — reeds
Cover and Artwork cover

Cover art: William Mohline
Photography: Marty Perez
Design: Louise Molnar

Songs 1. Two Car Garage
2. Landscape on the Events Horizon
3. Beyond the Gum Wrapper
total time:
Recording Info

Recorded at Sparrow Sound Design, Chicago, IL, on November 20, 1993

Produced by: Jim Baker
Executive Producer: Bruno Johnson
Engineer: Bradley Parker-Sparrow

Liner Notes

WARNING: Do not listen to this late at night or you may have difficulty falling asleep.

For anyone who, like me, considers caffeine their drug of choice, the nuances of its kick cover much more ground than the image of frenzied hyperactivity with which it is commonly saddled. Don’t misunderstand: coffee jitters are a reality. The bitter alkaloid is unquestionably a stimulant. But it can be a delicate high as well; when administered correctly it can cause sustained euphoria or produce a more precisely placed energy boost. Point is, there’s more to caffeine than the groggy morning riser peeling back encrusted eyes and gulping sweet elixir of java-life. Slugging jo-bean is a refined habit.

Likewise with Caffeine. Though the whole of this record has energy coursing through its veins — propulsion and flow providing an overall sense of edge-of-your-seat motion — it is not content to wield harshness and kinetics as the only means of creating that dynamism. Instead, Caffeine keeps things multi-dimensional, moving between passages of tender Iyricism, intricacy, dense abstruseness, and humor, as well as the more aerobic forms of energy release found when the proverbial pot boils over. No one in Caffeine shies away from escalating tensions, as a quick listen to the Braxton-like staccato streams and fuzz-tone of Ken Vandermark at the outset of "Two Car Garage" will attest. But check out the way that cut moves out of its more vicious sound swells, relaxing to let Steve Hunt develop his bright and muted objects-on-snare approach. Meanwhile, Vandermark blows holes in Baker’s bulky clusters using blues-saxophone language bites, like Earl Bostic lost in a free jazz labyrinth and looking for the missing blue line.

In creative music, three is a magic number. Trios are the optimal grouping for open improvisation. Large groups can be unwieldy and overly-reliant on restraint and ascetic democraticism — individual voices are usually sublimated to the will of the group. Duos, on the other hand, tend to use variations on a dialogue model, with musicians see-sawing back and forth over an idea; as often as not, this produces something more like double solos than genuine interactive communication. But the simple addition of a third player increases the complexity of possible relationships and roles logarithmically while still allowing individual voices to ring out. Suddenly it’s not a question of speaking and being spoken to but a certain kind of triangulation, allowing for two-on-ones, complete independence, complementary interdependence, uncanny unisons, solos, duos, shifting spotlights, and various less describable activities. And, as a listener, the trio setting makes it much more difficult to discern a simple teleological line and trace out why things happen in terms of cause and effect.

Think of the spaciousness of Air, for instance, or the potent little sounds of the Altena/Christmann/Lovens "Weavers" trio. Indeed, the exact trio instrumentation that configures Caffeine — piano/drums/reeds — has been the format for some of the premier ensembles of improvised music. There’s Peter Brötzmann/Han Bennink/Fred van Hove; Cecil Taylor’s trios with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille or Sunny Murray; and Alexander (von) Schlippenbach’s ongoing trio with Evan Parker and Paul Lovens. To invoke the mainstream moniker "piano trio" doesn’t quite cut it when describing the work of these bands. Nor that of Caffeine, who — like the similarly outfitted Swedish group called Gush — represents a new generation’s extension of the tradition of free music opened up by the above radical threesomes.

The component parts of Caffeine individually constitute three of the most active members of the Chicago music scene. Ken Vandermark (born Warwick, Rhode Island, 1964) works with a seemingly impossible number of regular groups — the Vandermark Quartet (check their debut CD Big Head Eddie on Platypus), the Waste Kings, the Flying Luttenbachers, and the NRG Ensemble — as well as ad-hoc ensembles and one-off projects, including tributes to Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra and George Clinton, and Thelonious Monk. Jim Baker (born Chicago, IL, 1950) — who played Monk in Vandermark’s tribute — has been on the Windy City scene for years, playing regularly at Fred Anderson’s biweekly jam session at the Velvet Lounge, working with the Gilgamesh Orchestra, playing analog synthesizer in various improvised settings. I suspect, since he’s never released a record, that Baker’s new voice will be, for many, this disc’s major revelation. Another revelation comes in the form of Steve Hunt (born Geneva, IL, 1954), familiar to many from his work as the understated power behind Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble for the last decade and a half, exposed now as a monster drummer and sensitive percussionist outside those zany environs.

On this record, as always, Caffeine plays freely improvised music, without the safety net of a score. Together, Vandermark, Baker, and Hunt incorporate elements of the free jazz and instant compositional lexicon, sounds and shapes familiar from the thirty years of honing that that art form has undergone. But these aural atoms are recast in a new context, a specific system of coordinates — that is, the way the three musicians are coordinated — the parameters of which are maintained by Caffeine. Hence, in this music we hear a definite "voice," the sound of a defiantly individual ensemble made up of defiant individualists. The monumental "Landscape on the Events Horizon," for instance, has a peaks-and-valleys narrative line that is so clearly articulated you could practically storyboard it. A short way in, Vandermark starts to place discreet bass-clarinet notes, squeezed like cake decorations out of a tube; he breaks off to rumble with Baker, then moves back to these one-note blats. A high-tone shifts the trio into a more pensive mode, in which we get a good listen to Baker, who can sound like Cecil — mobile centers of sonic gravity, skittishness, and a good deal of constant energy — but often sounds like Sun Ra or perhaps Horace Tapscott, with interlocking lines, repeated clusters, and clipped block chords. You have to conjure him in your head: a small-framed, mad professorly man, his right hand whipping between distant points on the keyboard, his left hand darting to push up his glasses.

Over the course of "Landscape," Vandermark drops out several times (practically, to change instruments; structurally, to provide contrast and not dominate with his loud melody axe). Each time he re-enters the piece’s atmosphere he heats things up. The first time, he entices the others into more animated interaction, adding a swaggering vibrato to the ends of tenor sax phrases. His second time back in, he brings an explosive burst, matched by some of Baker’s most ferocious playing; Hunt adds splashes and nicely out-of-sync thunder to the out-front peakers. I hear some of Sunny Murray’s wave-like motion in Hunt, but also Tony Oxley’s diffuse, abstracted sense of pulse — sort of like Oxley playing on a relatively standard kit.

When Vandermark enters again for the third time (on clarinet) he picks up on a shared repetition between Baker and Hunt, over which he rocks the first in a series of slow, two-note trills that recall the single-tone utterances at the top of the piece. After a deep licorice-stick belch, Ken slurs around like a rubber-toned Pee Wee Russell, before a herky-jerky crank-start kicks on the engine, which begins to purr in the form of an intense mallets solo from Hunt. The rpms are raised as Vandermark joins in on bass-clarinet, rolling toms ’n’ rims and sheets and slabs of piano under Ken’s squealing caterwaul. Baker treats us to a solo, then snare drum and acid tenor tones prepare for the no-prisoners finish, in which Baker’s patterns swirl as a tornado of sound lifts the bandstand, house, Kansas, and Toto, too. Low piano strings quiver in the aftermath.

It should be clear that this music moves too fast and too far for neat summary. I haven’t even mentioned the way that "Beyond The Gum Wrapper" figures in Caffeine’s beguiling, ever-wondrous system of musical weights and measures. Probably advisable not to. In fact, it’s not a bad measure of improvised music to ask how easy it is to describe. The harder, the better. If the music translates too easily into the certitudes of language, something must be wrong. In this case, for sure, it’s impossible to fully explicate the propulsion, the flow, the sustained euphoria, the precisely placed energy boosts. Caffeine’s a refined habit — catch a buzz.

- John Corbett
Chicago, March 1994



The liner notes of [Caffeine] start off with an homage to the subtler effects of caffeine on the central nervous system, and a warning: "Do not listen to this late at night or you might have difficulty falling asleep." It turns out to be true.

Caffeine is an energy trio capable of expressing both the powerful and the delicate sides of scoreless improvisation. At its heart is drummer Steve Hunt (a veteran of Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble), who, like his nearest correlate Tony Oxley, is a master of the lightly controlled percussive phrase as well as the all-out jam. Ken Vandermark, swapping between saxes, clarinet and bass clarinet, holds the threads together with humorous, jutting lines that complement, seldom obscure the band’s harmonic transitions. The astounding playing of Jim Baker comes as a revelation to me. His hands move with blinding speed across the registers, pushing chordal chunks around as if they were puzzle pieces.

Vandermark’s bass clarinet work is his most enjoyable. The Dolphy you hear in him comes from long devotion — he has produced a Dolphy tribute project, as well as others to Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, and George Clinton. Throughout the record his inventiveness and sensitivity exceed his tonal quality, but not so on bass clarinet. Here his sound is fat and full-throated. The nature of the instrument also seems to reign-in his more frenetic tendencies, allowing his musical thoughts a fuller development cycle.

If the trio configuration is an ideal between the dialogue of the duet and the necessary democracy of larger goups, Caffeine exploits the format to its fullest. Each member is given the space necessary to allow their ideas free range without crowding out the others. Baker seems to benefit from the format most of all, his playing easily focusing on both Hunt’s rhythms and Vandermark’s melodies. Hunt, on the other hand, I would like to hear in a duet setting — his highly conversational style comes to the fore when Vandermark drops out for a few bars. But these are nit-picky matters. Caffeine functions brilliantly as a free improv trio, and provide yet another reason to take a trip to Chicago.

- Scott Hacker
Cadence Magazine, November 1994

Reed player Ken Vandermark, percussionist Steve Hunt and pianist Jim Baker are the driving forces of Caffeine, a Chicago-based experimental trio that turns in stunning work on its self-titled, debut recording. If some of Vandermark’s playing in other Chicago bands has leaned toward alternative-rock languages, here he and his cohorts ride the precipice of "free-jazz" and classical avant-garde idioms. As a result, one is spared the relentless backbeats, ear-shattering electric guitars, screeching sonorities and other 90’s cliches. Instead, Vandermark, Hunt and Baker offer expansive tone poems, each unique to this band. Baker’s relentless pianism, Vandermark’s penetrating reed work and Hunt’s meticulous percussion perpetually react to one another in unexpected, novel ways.

- Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune, August 14, 1994

(***) The eponymous debut of Hunt, Vandermark and pianist Jim Baker’s free improvisation trio, Caffeine provides high-energy blow-outs followed by explorations of space and color. Baker’s first recorded outing is appetite-whetting, as he skillfully skirts Taylor’s long shadow. Still, the concise, pointed statements of Russell, NRG and The Vandermark Quartet prove to be more dynamic than Caffeine’s elemental ebb and flow.

- Bill Shoemaker
"To Hal & Beyond", Down Beat, September 1995

"Caffeine" once described this trio’s recklessly wired sonic buzz perfectly: balls-to-the-wall free-improvised music that rarely took a breath. Yet over the course of their two-year existence reedman Ken Vandermark, pianist Jim Baker, and percussionist Steve Hunt have stretched their kinetic attack to the point where tension-and-release peaks-and-valleys density is as crucial as their unflagging energy. Caffeine takes models like Alex Schlippenbach’s trio with Paul Lovens and Evan Parker or Cecil Taylor’s with Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille and smears them with other outside sounds: Vandermark, for example, who plays tenor sax clarinet and bass clarinet, dumps out seemingly incongruous but highly effective bits of lopsided R & B honking, his Braxtonion probes segueing into guttural choppy blurts. Baker’s aggressively coloristic piano is rife with expected post-Taylor techniques, everything from clusters to pummeling sound sheets, but they’re informed by a sensibility fond of classical music and Bill Evans. Steve Hunt’s playing in Caffeine marks a radical departure from his better known gig with the NRG Ensemble; more likely to disassemble time than keep it with this group he provides gorgeous contrapuntal interaction and high-wire textural tension. It’s visceral stuff that also happens to be intellectually rigorous, and you can catch a buzz off either angle. This performance celebrates the release of Caffeine’s excellent self-titled debut CD which is also the premier release on the new Okka Disk label a Chicago concern dedicated to unjustly ignored jazzers — discs by Fred Anderson, Marilyn Crispell and Peter Brötzmann are forthcoming.

- Peter Margasak
Chicago Reader, July 22, 1994