1. Rip it up. "And when the people hear what I man do them hear a different beat, a waxy beat Ė like you stepping in glue. Them hear a different bass, a rebel bass, coming at you like sticking a gun."
Thatís producer Lee Perry, describing the emergence of reggae out of the fidgety, uptight ska beat. Vintage reggae: the sinister OO7/spaghetti-western basslines; the "waxy," surreal, slo-mo rhythms, slashed by Bruce Lee cymbal hits. Those new rhythms, in the late Ď60s and early Ď70s, had parallels north of Jamaica, in the southern cities like New Orleans, where the popular James Brown funk rhythms mixed with indigenous street and swamp sounds in the work of producer Allen Toussaint and Meters drummer Zigaboo Modeliste. What they shared with the reggae sound was a kind of Le Corbusian minimalism: Itís not how hyperactive a rhythm is that magnetizes it, how MANY subdivisions of a beat are sounded. No, sometimes itís more a matter of finding a good ratio of whatís stated and whatís left unstated, whatís given and whatís left implicit. The little double-take you might do when stepping in glue, your foot stuck to the floor, suddenly unwilling to do what you say, immobile when you had thought to move it. And just when you get it unstuck, thereís that cold nudge at your back: danger incarnate, the barrel of the bass riff. Archetypical movie tuff-guy doesnít wear his tuffness on his sleeve. He holds something back. Something in reserve, some mystery, thatís what makes the tuff-guy tuff. Same goes for tuff rhythms. Hold something back. But when you speak, make it count.
2. Tommy McCook meets Serge Chaloff inna Wicker Park studio. At a recording session (not the one at hand) Hamid Drake is asked for a reggae rhythm. "Which one?" Uh, oh, dunno, which ones you got? "Lots. One-drop, steppers, dancehall..." He reels off a laundry-list of beats like a gastronome delectating over his favorite cheeses. The fact is that thereís no such thing as THE reggae beat. There are many. And not only according to historical styles Ė at any moment in reggae history, there are numerous rhythms vying for attention, sub-styles, special tricks like Bunny Leeís trademark "flying cymbal" or the incredible hi-hat sound on Upsetters tracks. Popular music is not monolithic, itís full of variation, mutation, even inaccurate imitation. For the real student of popular music, willing to dedicate time to locate the subtle shades of difference between, say, types of rhythm, reggae and funk and soul all offer endless bounty. And for the creative improvisor, they offer an enormous natural resource. Hear, for instance, the Art Ensembleís "Tatas-Matoes," from í67, which gleefully combined JB-based funk and free jazz. King Curtis caught in a Cuisinart Ė ayee! But as I hear it, though thereís a lot of new jazz that seeks to borrow from popular genres, not so much of it really rips it up the way the source musics do. Maybe thatís because practitioners are simply using appropriation to siphon some juice they donít have themselves. Maybe itís because they donít fully integrate the transidiomatic material into their own music, but treat it superficially, monolithically, at armís length. Like an outsider, a special guest. Problem is, borrowed musicís no good until itís family. Very, very familiar. All three members of Spaceways are cognoscenti of popular music, not dabblers, and the supple way they deploy it is potent like a depth charge Ė an explosion that rocks the ocean with an epicenter far beneath the surface.
3. A versatile machine, dread threesome. How many different guises can the bass-drum-sax formation don? Essential lineup in jazz since Sonny Rollins went way out west, itís capable of shape-shifting into an effective instrumental soul vehicle, deep-dish dub operator, hard-as-nails funk outfit, West Coast jazz team. Spaceways Inc. shows just how many ways this mutable grouping can work. The idea was spawned over a number of years in a series of songbook projects of saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Vandermark, often with Bostonian drummer Curt Newton, including ones centered on music by outerspace ensemble jazz chameleon Sun Ra and heavy funk pioneer George Clinton. Preparing a special Ra/Clinton duet concert with drummer Hamid Drake for the third anniversary party of Chicagoís Empty Bottle Jazz Series, in 1999, Vandermark surprised everyone by secretly inviting outstanding bassist Nate McBride, also a colleague from Beantown. Spaceways Inc. was birthed that night at the Bottle, the trio whipping back and forth between nasty, back-beaten funk and swinging, exploratory jazz.
Spaceways Inc.ís eponymous first CD documented that hard-line dichotomous approach. On Version Soul the trio investigates middle ground, filling out the spectrum on originals by Vandermark and McBride that navigate various funks, souls, reggaes, dubs, jazzes, frees, and in-betweens, all treated with intelligence and passion. Here we find Vandermarkís first recorded offerings on his new horn, baritone saxophone, which he has taken to like he was born for it. As on the debut, McBride continues to astound with his sensitivity on acoustic doublebass and his power on electric. For my money, heís the one to call on the latter; heís mastered it as a separate instrument, not as an amplified upright played horizontally. Hamid Drake is simply an inspiration. Tuffer than the rest, student and teacher rolled into one. In the Spaceways context he reawakens ghosts of his many years spent playing reggae, blues and other popular musics in various Chicago nightspots, and he puts into action that endless bank of knowledge concerning the subtleties of reggae rhythm, the fisheye time of dub, funk spankings, the power and tensile strength of free jazz. Not to mention the sumptuous swing on "Reasonable Hour," his ride cymbal fluffing and floating around him like heís laying back onto a giant feather tick.
4. Super-Bad Slag In his anti-avant garde diatribe The Agony of Modern Music, Henry Pleasants wrote: "What we know as modern music is the noise made by deluded speculators picking through the slagpile." Yes, perhaps, but wake the town and tell the people what a joyful noise these deluded speculators have found rummaging around in the junkheap. ĖJohn Corbett, Chicago, January 2002