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Volume 90, Issue 89

Thursday, March 13, 1997



The windy city's steam

Sam Pane
Gazette Staff

For 500 points and the game, Fred Flintstone knew it was quitting time at the quarry by the sound of what kind of whistle?

Wait – I guess this analogy isn't all that appropriate since the whistle was the sick torture fetish of Mr. Slate yanking on the tail feathers of a large prehistoric bird.

Steam. Steam is where my unintelligible digression is leading – mainly to the superheated sonic water vapours of Chicago jazz quartet Steam.

Ken Vandermark, reed-man for the group, explains the Chicago style of handling jazz. Windy city musicians are known for their jazz muscle, characterized by a "strong, aggressive way of playing and not taking the back seat to anybody."

Chicago jazz is not about standing still. As a matter of fact, the members of Steam can't even stand still long enough to stick with one group. Vandermark, Jim Baker (piano, not televangelism), Kent Kessler (bass) and Tim Mulvenna (drums) are all mixed up in literally dozens of side projects.

How the hell can Steam move anything, let alone music, if they're all over the place? Ahhhh, such is the nature of excited water molecules and Chicago jazz musicians, my Grade 7 science teacher and Ken Vandermark in turn remind me.

If Steam has any parts which aren't moving, it's a fundamental devotion to improvisation.

"We're 90 per cent improv," says Ken. "Our whole ball game is making our compositions to set up the improv."

Ken succeeds in confusing my armchair jazz knowledge; I ask him, "So you're music is like completely different live?" (At this point I get the disturbing feeling that I sound like a valley girl).

"Not exactly, our stuff is open. You'll recognize the melody but we go with it from there. It's melodic interaction as opposed to a set harmonic sequence." Indeed. (I am a valley girl.)

Ken resurrects any shred of dignity I may have once had.

"You don't need to be a die-hard jazz fan to like the music." Yeah?

"Actually half our fans are people who are bored with the alternative music scene and the flatness of rock." Yeah?!?

"You know Sam, a lot of people listen to jazz because of the visceral energy going on, it's a quality thing, an immediate thing happening instead of a processed sound heard a thousand times before." I think that too. I like that feeling. (Man, now I'm a child... or is it valley girl still?)

So where does Steam fit into the new school of jazz? Ken describes Steam as ever changing and seemingly oblivious to the identity crisis jazz is presently facing. On one end there are neo-conservative traditionalists and on the other, radical European influenced experimentalists.

Ken says, "There's too many people making categories [of music] instead of playing." I hear you Ken. (I'm a Gazette writer ).

Whether it's playing in jazz festivals or playing in clubs, Steam is playing. Though Vandermark prefers the intimacy of clubs to larger forums, places "where the acoustics can be heard instead of blasted through PAs," festivals like the New School offer larger audiences a chance to participate in the music. Festivals give jazz bands the opportunity to explore influential elements. Steam will be dealing with developments which began with Eric Dolphy – '60s alto legend, in the first half of its gig. Half Steam/half Dolphy. Sounds like a deliciously jazzy café latté. Steam is anything but hot air. (I'm an amateur jazz fan.)

To Contact The Entertainment Department: gazent@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997