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AALY Trio + Ken Vandermark
Hidden in the Stomach

Cat. No.: SHCD149

Personnel:
Mats Gustafsson  tenor sax, baritone sax (right channel)
Ken Vandermark  tenor sax, clarinet, bass-clarinet (left channel)
Peter Janson  bass
Kjell Nordeson  drums, percussion

Track Listing:
1. Structure à la Mallé (Mats Gustafsson) 13:29
2. Why I Don't Go Back (Ken Vandermark) 10:10
3. Song for Che (Charlie Haden) 8:57
4. Unknown Title (Ken Vandermark) 8:24
5. Albumblatt Again (AALY Trio / Vandermark) 1:43
6. Ghosts / Spirits (Albert Ayler) 11:56

Total time: 55:02
 
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Recorded in an excellent Stockholm studio during December 1996, AALY TRIO + KEN VANDERMARK features Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark on reeds, together with bassist Peter Janson and drummer Kjell Nordeson. AALY TRIO has been in existence for a number of years, consistently playing exciting music. This is their debut on disc and it is quite a major event, particularly since they are joined by another significant contributor to new jazz improvisation in the shape of Ken Vandermark. The music played by the quartet is free improvisation but their control is no empathic and cohesive that the music almost sounds arranged. Extraordinary.
 
 
Liner Notes

"Paul Valéry said poetry is hidden in the stomach, you're obsessed by it, never quite sure of it, but know it's there and want to bring it out."
William Baziotes

In a debate with a friend over the relative qualities of Chaim Soutine and Piet Mondrian, William Baziotes argued that "...looseness of execution [is] no virtue in itself...." This statement actually says a good bit about Baziotes, a painter often grouped with the abstract expressionists, but out of step with them, preferring orderly forms - never straying completely from figuration - over the drizzled, slashed and flung pigments of action-painters like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning. "[F]reedom is a state of mind," Baziotes concluded. "Freedom of mind leads to freedom of paint."
We unfortunately have a sloppy art discourse that equates looseness of executing with freedom. Things that are shaggy, unkempt, and disorderly are seen as "more free" than forms that have distinct edges, exact angles, primary colors, an ordered sense of composition. The active gesture - revealed brushstroke or paint-splash - seems to admit to the painter behind the gesture, hence connecting the activity to the product in a moment of instantaneous freeform realization. Loose = spontaneous; spontaneous = free. Mondrian's ordered blocks of uniform color cannot be free, where Soutine's rough, organic, impastoed blob-figures necessarily are. This equation is strongly marked in music, as well. The notion of spontaneity so integral to (but not coterminous with) improvisation leads some to feel strongly that only things which seem unplanned are improvised, that only the spontaneous is free; the way to assess how planned things are is through how loose or tight the execution is; ergo, the looser the execution, the more free the music.
Proponents of this idea tend to be writers and audience members, rather than musicians. Most musicians know how much discipline it takes to make something good sound unplanned, how paradoxical the relation is between looseness and tightness. Something tight can be something stiff, unrehearsed; conversely, rehearsal and discipline can loosen the musicians up, make them comfortable, let them swing. It's a thin, but oh-so important line between slipshod and relaxed. Between tight and uptight. And something tight can set the listener free: check your heart as you listen to Clyde Stubblefield's drumming with James Brown - so exact, but not mechanical, his head's got to be free. The words are tricky, shifty, unstable. Thus, one can never affix absolute value to either term. Sometimes it's desirable to be loose as a goose, where other times one needs to tighten up. In the latter case, one doesn't necessarily relinquish freedom, but rather one accepts a different state of expression.
It might seem strange to begin notes to an album like Hidden in the Stomach with a meditation such as this, since one could easily hear the AALY Trio's meeting with Ken Vandermark in relation to wild and wooly action-jazz, a tradition oft compared to abstract expressionism. But if looseness of execution is not always a virtue, surely it's not always a fault. And at a deeper level the question arises: can we always immediately determine how loose the execution based on surface appearances (or sounds)? Franz Kline's paintings, for example, may at first seem loose, slashing, calligraphic, but his canvases were huge, that sense of spontaneous wipe in truth a carefully produced, tightly executed effect. Once again, the paradox of tight-loose / loose-tight unbalances any certainty. Is what AALY and Ken Vandermark are doing loose? Is it tight? Is it free? We've got to listen, to contemplate how they do what they do, without recourse to categorical simplitudes.
The association between AALY-leader Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark began in 1994, when the Swedish saxophonist visited Chicago for the first of what has turned into many times. I was in the audience with Mats as he listened to Ken for the first time, playing with the Unheard Music Quartet (a group that never recorded before splitting up a year later), and I remember how enthusiastic he was about Ken's playing, straight away. I also had the pleasure of playing Vandermark a cassette of the music that became Mouth Eating Trees and Related Activities (Okka Disk), with Mats, Barry Guy and Paul Lovens, and listening as his jaw hit the floor of my car. They were, plainly, a very complementary match. In that fateful first visit, the two reed players formed a quartet called FJF, with a Windy City rhythm section of Kent Kessler and drummer Steve Hunt. The FJF debut, Blow Horn (Okka Disk), includes a different version of "Structure á la Malle," with the same basic formal skeleton but without the composed melodic theme heard on Hidden in the Stomach.
Since beginning to work together, Mats and Ken have collaborated frequently in different contexts. They are now set to participate in the Peter Brötzmann Tentet for a concert and recording project in Chicago and AALY has a prospective first tour of the U.S. planned for early '98 with Vandermark. AALY, which has also existed in a quartet version with pianist Per Henrik Wallin, is the "jazziest" of Gustafsson's ensembles, explicitly signaling his connection to the expressionist free jazz and restructuralist archetectural lineages. Drummer and percussionist Kjell Nordeson is Gustafsson's oldest playing partner, their work together dating back to shared childhood in the northern city of Umeĺ, while bassist Peter Janson has brought his astounding flexibility, depth and range (just listen to his intro to the Albert Ayler medley "Ghosts / Spirits") to the group rather recently. In December, 1996, Vandermark joined AALY for a tour of Sweden which culminated in the studio recording you have here.
Hidden in the Stomach attests to the non-contradiction between tightness and looseness. A week of working over the tunes in rehearsal and in public allowed Vandermark to integrate into the ensemble not just as a guest, but as member. I hear a clarity to the music, a decisiveness not born of willfully loose execution but of common goals and committment to the discipline of free music. When you listen to sloppy free jazz, those moments where the discipline breaks down are palpable, the music begins to drag, momentum leaking out of the energy-field like air from a tire. It meanders, wanders, loses focus. Vandermark's compositions and Gustafsson's structure and the Charlie Haden and Ayler pieces are used as diving platforms rather than gang-planks. The quartet swan-dives into open improvising; they're not made to fall forward, blindfolded, into the unknown.
We come full circle to acknowledge that the ripping, dripping, gurgling paint-throwers have a discipline of their own. Looseness of execution is no virtue in itself, but it can be used to good advantage to produce things otherwise impossible, to coax poetry out of the gut. That's why there are good and bad action-artists, just like there are good and bad free jazz musicians. Behind the energy and expression, the decades of preparation subsumed into a moment of spontaneous eruption, there's a sensibility at work. A mind. Freedom is a state of mind. Freedom of mind leads to freedom of sound.

John Corbett
Chicago, August 1997
 
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