From concept to execution, Design in Time is a visionary marvel, an album that honors jazz innovators as it steps boldly into the music's future. The maiden release by the Sound in Action Trio, a Chicago outfit led by reedsman Ken Vandermark, Design in Time presents the young sax/clarinet whiz accompanied only by the explosive percussion work of two drummers on a set that mixes avant-garde staples with four sterling Vandermark originals. But rather than being yet another experiment in minimalism, the album is a tuneful, energetic, and often gorgeous mélange that blends the outré with bebop traditionalism, and definitively establishes Vandermark as one of jazz's unique new voices.
Not that he's a greenhorn: Vandermark has worked with several Windy City groups, most notably the NRG Ensemble, Steam, and Witches and Devils, where he held his own with contemporary hotshots such as Mars Williams and Joe McPhee. With Sound in Action Vandermark has enlisted Sun Ra Arkestra alumnus Robert Barry, and Tim Mulvenna, a young drummer who has served time in Steam, the Vandermark 5, and the Chicago Bridge Unit. Together this threesome demonstrates a versatility and sonic depth that belies its sparse instrumentation. Ornette Coleman is feted here with three ace covers -- "Law Years," "Feet Music," and "Peace," each of which receives lovingly loose treatment from the trio. The songs are stripped to their melodic framework then carefully rebuilt, with Barry and Mulvenna working subtly at their kits (which are helpfully mixed into the right and left channels respectively) as Vandermark soars both within and beyond the tunes, offering a blazing assault of notes here, light flourishes there, always pushing the percussionists to the outer boundaries of rhythm.
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Elsewhere Sound in Action pays fitting tribute to Albert Ayler ("Angels"), Don Cherry ("The Thing"), Thelonious Monk ("Green Chimneys"), and Sun Ra ("Sounds and Something Else"). It's Vandermark's originals, though, that underpin the brilliance of this oddly instrumented trio's debut. "One More Once," constructed atop a quasi-martial pair of drum figures, finds Vandermark honking with one foot in the barrelhouse history of Jay McNeely and the other in the out-there territory of Coleman and Coltrane, leaving plenty of room for the propulsive calisthenics of Barry, to whom the song is dedicated. "Well Suited" is a rainy-night ballad with ride cymbals and smoky, contemplative sax establishing a slinky, nocturnal ambiance. "Top Shelf" and "Cut to Fit," however, are the set's highlights. They're a pair of screwball boppers that swing like mad, with Barry and Mulvenna crashing and tumbling in artful unison as Vandermark, playing clarinet on the latter, pokes around at melodies that conjure the ghosts of his influences yet ring as true and clever as anything produced by the elders. And given the compositional company he chose to keep on Design in Time, that's a hell of an accomplishment.