Those arriving at the NOW Lounge prior to the 10 pm start of the Vandermark 5 blowdown seemed slightly apprehensive as they fumbled through their billfolds at the door. "Is Ken Vandermark playing here? Really?" They asked as if it might be some kind of hoax.
No doubt part of their uncertainty had to do with the venue itself, since the new NOW Lounge -- on the main floor of the NOW building at Church and Shuter -- has only been hosting live performances for a few months. But this was also the first time the highly touted Chicago jazz hotshot had brought his saxophone to Toronto.
Casually taking their places against the brick wall, the Vandermark 5 looked like a bunch of regular-joe Midwesterners. Without their instruments there would've been no way to tell them from the standing-room-only crowd that spilled into an adjoining chat room where the action was projected on a big screen.
However, the moment they put lips to mouthpiece, it was clear that these low-key dudes were anything but average. Slowly and quietly, they began with the moodier moments from the recent Burn The Incline (Atavistic) disc, with Vandermark, off to stage left, barely taking a breath.
Never once did our boy feel the need to step forward and let everyone know who was boss. It might be the Vandermark 5, but this was plainly a five-way group interaction in which trombonist Jeb Bishop, upright bassist Kent Kessler, drummer Tim Mulvenna and saxophonists Dave Rempis and Vandermark all hammered away in support of the tune.
Vandermark stood out instead in the compositions and arrangements. The former film student may try to downplay the influence of the noir genre and crime jazz soundtracks, but it's readily apparent in the Vandermark 5's insistent rhythms and captivating use of tension. Each song was a thriller.
Despite all the glass, steel and exposed stone in the place, the sound throughout the performance was remarkably crisp and clean. A stellar night of genuinely exciting music. Hopefully, one of many to come.
VANDERMARK 5, at the NOW Lounge, September 22. Tickets: $10. Attendance: 80. Rating: NNNNN