logo   International Front (OD12005)

Steelwool Trio:
Ken Vandermark — reeds
Kent Kessler — bass
Curt Newton — percussion

Cover and Artwork cover

Graphic Designer: Louise Molnar
Photographer: Marty Perez

Songs 1. Tough Sledding (9:07)
2. Bowling Alley Roughs (5:54)
3. Tag (13:21)
4. Otherwise (5:42)
5. Day Job (5:48)
6. Another Orbit (10:12) (MPEG2)
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)
Recording Info

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)

Liner Notes

If 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 to Chicago.

Vandermark’s 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.

The 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 discovery.

One 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.

The 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.

In 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.

- Peter Margasak
May 1995


Reviews ***(*) (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, exhilarating, unrepentant.

— Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD

Anybody 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.

"Soundcheck," 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.

Steelwool 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.

Curt 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.

- Hal Howland
Modern Drummer, June 1996

Steel Avant-garde

If 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?

The 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.

To 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.

The 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.

Newton 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.

- Manny Theiner
Pittsburgh Newsweekly, March 1996

Critics Choice:
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.

- Peter Margasak
Chicago Reader, December 23, 1994