Ken Vandermark — reeds
Kent Kessler — bass
Curt Newton — percussion
Graphic Designer: Louise Molnar
Photographer: Marty Perez
2. Bowling Alley Roughs (5:54)
3. Tag (13:21)
4. Otherwise (5:42)
5. Day Job (5:48)
6. Another Orbit (10:12)
7. Dime Store Novel (6:28)
8. Wrenches (5:30)
9. No Sleeves No Service (11:15)
total time: 73:53
All compositions by Ken Vandermark (Exploding Note Music/BMI)
Recorded at PBS, Westwood, MA, September 5 & 6, 1994
Producer: Ken Vandermark
Executive Producer: Bruno Johnson
Engineer: Peter Kontrimas
Mixed by: Brendan Burke (Loose Booty, Chicago, IL)
you think about it, steel wool is some weird stuff: threads of steel
so fine they;re actually soft, spun into ugly bunches to form a
highly effective abrasive. Both name and object are oxymorons. As
far as I know, however, the steel wool you find in the supermarket
aisle with the sponges, mops, floor polish, and cleaners has limited
uses. That kind of steel wool scrapes shit off stuff it shouldn’t
be on, everything from rust to burnt food. But no one wears socks
or sweaters woven from steel wool, you can’t find blankets made
from it, and I seriously doubt if there are any metallic Turkish
carpets hanging in Istanbul shop windows glistening in the sunlight.
It’s just one of those strange modern inventions. Maybe someone
was whittling away at a slab of steel, balled up the shavings, and
serendipitously realized that cleaning would never be the same again.
But it’s the tactile sensation of steel wool that’s most intriguing.
It can be squeezed! Steel, one of the most durable and hard substances
that you encounter every day, yields to the mere pressure exerted
by a hand. When I first heard what Ken Vandermark was calling his
new trio with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Curt Newton, I immediately
thought of that old box of S.O.S. pads that used to sit under the
sink when I was growing up. Steelwool (with cap, natch). Sounds
good, I thought. To those at all familiar with Vandermark through
a seemingly infinite array of projects — Vandermark Quartet, Caffeine,
the Standards improvisation project, NRG Ensemble, and other diverse
groupings, past, present, and future — Kessler’s name won’t be a
new one. He plays with Ken in the Quartet and NRG. He’s one of Chicago’s
most flexible all-around bassists, possessed with a warm, full,
brawny sound, and equally adept playing standards and free improv.
Drummer Curt Newton stretches back to Vandermark’s Boston days.
You may have heard his chamberish contributions in Debris or his
simpatico off-kilter swinging in the Joe Morris Trio. He’s played
inspiring duets with Vandermark during yearly Christmas sojourns
back to Chicago for the last few years, performing thematic tributes
to Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Lyons, Sun Ra, and George Clinton. With the
exception of recent collaborator Hamid Drake, Newton is the most
"jazz-like" percussionist Vandermark’s played with since coming
endless variety in playing situations reflects his unquenchable
thirst for musical growth and experience. The approach and sound
of Steelwool is no exception. Apart from representing his first
regular working reed-bass-drums trio — there’s surely a line, albeit
a crooked one, from Sonny Rollins to Steelwool — Newton’s penchant
for restrained playing forces a recurring sense of space previously
missing in much of Vandermark’s work. Whether Kessler’s authoritative
playing fills in gaps or simply lets silence creep in, Vandermark
offers some of the most thoughtful and emotional playing of his
short but well-documented career.
CD is loaded with extended, often contemplative, solo passages —
check out Newton’s near-silent cymbal dances or Kessler’s evocatively
sad thick slabs of arco — providing a stark contrast to the hyper-frenetic
density of the rock-leaning Vandermark Quartet or the whirling improv
dervish of Caffeine. Newton’s certainly able to contribute delirious
clatter if the situation warrants it, but more often than not his
sensitive running commentary, retorts, prods, and fleshes out ’scapes,
reinforcing moods or creating a gorgeous tension with the presiding
one. And, of course, there are unadulterated romps of joyous cacophony,
where the groups sonic intensity unleashes surprising waves of gentle
of the most striking elements about Steelwool is Vandermark’s clarinet
playing. It’s long been a part of his reed arsenal, but he’s never
employed with as much boldness and ingenuity. Exploiting the instrument’s
association with swing, he uses it to dance happily over complex
rhythms or dip dizzily with klezmerish virtuosity, but he often
gets caught up in the good-time jag and transforms a toetapping
run into an explosive charge into the clarinet’s squealing upper
register. Sometimes he moves to the tenor at this point to let his
full fury have voice, but at other times he crams his impatient
muse into the licorice stick, filling it for all its worth.
combination of the group’s exquisite spareness and Newton’s unsinkable
swing drive results in Vandermark sounding almost boppish at times.
His gorgeous ballad style on tenor remains his greatest untapped
asset, and some of that astounding ability shows up in Steelwool.
This special trio allows its members to take stock in things amidst
the rumbling din. They done play any standards, but Vandermark’s
terrific writing suggests a deep connection with the music’s history
that most of his other projects haven’t evoked so clearly. Without
watering anything down, Steelwool is Ken Vandermark for listeners
who’ve shrunk at his previous bouts of musical extroversion.
a world sadly obsessed with seeing and hearing everything in terms
of strict polarity, Steelwool runs the gamut. Like the scrappy cleaning
object for which it is named, Steelwool encompasses both ends of
the spectrum, along with all the stops in between. They’ll cleanse
your head, but good.
***(*) (3 and a half stars)
The Steelwool Trio, with [Vandermark’s] long-time compadre [Kent] Kessler (also a
colleague in the NRG Ensemble) in great fettle, is a roughly shod
power trio that finds each man vying for attention: muscular,
— Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD
familiar with Vandermark’s work in the reformed NRG Ensemble (which
he joined after the death of its visionary leader Hal Russell) will
know what to expect from this trio session with fellow NRG member
Kessler. It is by and large action-packed free jazz played with guts,
virtuosity and humour, summoning up the spirits of Ayler, Russell,
Ra and Dolphy, but is tempered with moments of absorbing introspection.
The Wire. Issue 140, October 1995, p. 67.
The piano-less saxophone trio is a raw, unforgivingly exposed musical
environment. It can produce some of the most bracing sounds in jazz,
but it requires unassailable musicianship and total concentration:
It is no place for mediocrity.
struts its confidence in a dry, unvarnished recorded sound that
compels you to focus on musical substance. Ken Vandermark moves
from saxophones to clarinet and bass clarinet so subtly that his
lines often seem to grow directly to Kent Kessler’s rich depths.
Saxophones fly at full throttle, exploiting every available effect;
then clarinets happily recall the urbane swing of Benny Goodman
or the melancholy laughter of a Jewish wedding. Improvised sections
pounce suddenly on complex written ensembles and abrupt endings
that leave noth-ing to chance. Vandermark’s titles are as cool
as his bent melodies.
Newton maintains a beautiful flow, flavored by natty rolls and triplets
and a snare sound that can be described only as delicious. He turns
in smooth sets of 8ths and architectural, open solos; uses hands
and fingers to liberate his cymbals (the old Joe Morello tremolo
fits like tailored silk); and, whether blowing free or nailing
time, swings throughout.
Modern Drummer, June 1996
Wynton Marsalis is the Pat Buchanan of jazz — an obstinate conservative
who wants to keep alive the bygone sepia memories of the ’50s when
bebop was king — then who continues to challenge conventional boundaries?
Is there still an avant-garde?
answer is emphatically yes. Besides the well-known-hotbeds of activity
such as New York’s Knitting Factory, where the jazz genre continues
to evolve in a myriad of ways, there are other cities brewing with
just as much creativity. Saturday’s triple bill on the CMU campus
brings to light three such promising scenes.
begin with, there is a formidable group of young improvisers coming
out of Chicago, building on the avant-garde "tradition" established
by such pioneers as the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Hal Russell.
Steelwool Trio is led by saxophonist Ken Vandermark, a very busy
musician who flits from ensemble to ensemble like a fly. He’s worked
in the propulsive NRG Ensemble, the Cecil Tayloresque piano trio
Caffeine, the jazzcore assault unit Flying Luttenbachers and garage-rockers
The Waste Kings. His compatriots, bassist Kent Kessler and drummer
Curt Newton, form a rhythmic unit of almost telepathic intensity
on their debut CD, International Front. You won’t find anyone running
through the chord changes here — it’s a pure exploration of the elements
of sound in the grand style of Germany’s Free Music Productions
and Peter Brötzmann.
also tickles skins in Debris, an arty ensemble based a time zone
away in Boston, where new jazz continues to thrive (see the Accurate
record label for evidence). On Terre Haute, their 1993 disc, the
four members of Debris combine an experimental sonic palette with
the precision of studied musicians into a postjazz-rock context
that thwarts all predictable formulas. It’s complex stuff, worthy
of the Rastascan label from San Francisco, where some of the best
avant-garde jazz of the decade is being put together. And considering
that Rastascan will probably be handling the next CD by local avantjazz
quintet Water Shed, who round out this evening’s bill, Pittsburgh
musicians will find themselves in very good company.
Pittsburgh Newsweekly, March 1996
For the last three years Boston drummer Curt Newton has flown to
Chicago to join his old Beantown compatriot Ken Vandermark for annual
tribute performances; recipients of their musical homages have been
Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Lyons, Sun Ra and George Clinton. This years
excursion however marks a departure: the two will be joined by bassist
Kent Kessler for the Chicago debut of Steel Wool with some original
material in store. Vandermark is the hardest working jazzman in
town leading his own quartet as well as participating in other collectives
like the NRG Ensemble, Caffeine, the Unheard Music Quartet and the
rock band Waste Kings; Steel Wool provides an opportunity to hear
his explosive reed machinations in a different context. Judging
from material to be included on the trio’s forthcoming debut on the
Okka Disk label the most striking element is the sense of space
Vandermark evokes. Whereas the manic rock energy of the Vandermark
Quartet has an almost claustrophobic sonic density and the all-improv
piano-sax-drums of Caffeine whirl madly into blinding unripped territory,
Steel Wool truces the shadows of real tunes before floating off
into space. Vandermarks extroverted nature commands attention but
his woolly extrapolations succeed because of the excellent musical
support he receives. Kessler who works with him in the Vandermark
Quartet and NRG has become one of this town’s unheralded gems; sublimely
powerful, his full woody sound can go head to head with anyone while
his gorgeous lyricism is a masterful trump card. Newton also dazzles.
In town a month ago with guitarist Joe Morris he exhibited breathtaking
restraint breaking down time with a subtle hand tapping out painterly
splashes of sound. A drummer usually drives the group but in Steel
Wool he’s often coloring in lines sketched by Vandermark and thickened
by Kessler. It’s an exhilarating triumvirate.
Chicago Reader, December 23, 1994