Adding to the long list of Ken Vandermark collaborations, Burning Below Zero showcases an improvisation-driven sound that doesn’t stick to one mode of playing too heavily. Much of the record features frantic, free-metered battle between Vandermark, pianist Elisabeth Harnik and drummer Didi Kern, but the group also takes dives into loose, punky swing ploys and even a bit of freakish back-beat funk grooves. Keeping all this together is the group’s use of space. As one idea fades out, the group takes their time with ambient noise and sketches of melodies, before jumping onto the next. It’s an album that greatly varies in sonic content, but it’s also an album that values a natural series of events.
Things get off to an especially raw start. Pops and clicks from Vandermark’s horn interact with rumbling drum phrasing, then airy phrases quickly turn to screaming melodies and Harnik’s piano phrasing reaches a heavy urgency to really fill the room with noise. Eventually, Vandermark fades out of the equation, before returning to herald in a slight change in mood. Although the energy and pace remains high, Kern’s choice to jump off the cymbals, coupled with Vandermark’s sparse phrasing makes for a much lighter attack. Next, Vandermark gets left in the spotlight for some hefty melodic lines and Kern strong-arms the change in direction with a punky swing feel.
Within the first ten minutes (of a 30-minute track), the group has already taken some pretty big changes in direction, but what’s interesting about the first passage here is that each change in direction is directed—in a sense—by a player who’s rested for a couple minutes. This becomes a really interesting tactic throughout the record as the group has a player just listening to the sounds of the room, then offering the response that dictates the next move; it makes for cohesive, yet unpredictable sound.
The swing groove of “Raj 1” sputters out around the 13-minute mark and the group enters a really ambient place. Kern and Harnik take texture as their main focal point with cymbal work and extended techniques in the piano strings. Vandermark’s return offers something of a rhythmic element with throbbing saxophone lines for the other players to interact with. Somehow, the percussion section conjures this oddball drone sound and Vandermark gently transitions to a melodic role in anticipation of the final, haunting groove. The second half of this track is much sound and space driven, but again we see a lot of sonic ground covered with some fantastic collective playing.
“Raj 2,” admittedly, features a similar series of events to the first edition, but there’s some especially special work here from pianist Elisabeth Harnik. There’s a natural aura of drama that her piano melodies carry and this adds a lot of emotion to the abstractions that begin the track. As Vandermark pecks out melodies, Harnik stabs out some brooding piano lines and slides before resorting to rumbling low range to notch up the intensity. It’s work that’s not excessive, but it really drives the mood of the project at this point.
This track does also incorporate on of the coolest grooves on the record. After complete madness, ensues around the ten-minute mark, Kern abruptly jumps into a quasi-funk groove with Vandermark and Harnik still gripping the atonal slosh the group just came out of. It’s a really off-kilter moment and it’s great to hear so much raw passion in one place.
Considering that there’s two nearly 30-minute tracks, it’s certainly an album that takes a jazz head’s ear and a bit of patience, but this album is chock full of well executed material that feels very naturally crafted. As I’ve said time and time again with acoustic jazz records, this album isn’t necessarily breaking new ground sonically, but it certainly proves that gritty improvisation still has something to say.