“I think there’s a crisis in the arts today, and you can see it in jazz,” says the Vandermark Quartet’s reedman and leader, Ken Vandermark. “So many people are retreating back to bop. Too few people are playing contemporary music that’s true to themselves and their experiences. Parker and Monk played bop because it evolved out of their experience and their time. If you’re 20 or 30 years old today and you’re playing bop, that’s nostalgia. That’s not coming from your own experience.”

The Vandermark Quartet’s sound is the antithesis of nostalgia, a refusal to retreat to the security of cool jazz and bebop, with its elaborate melodies played over sophisticated, often rapid chord progressions. The group displays a remarkable ease with avant-garde jazz innovations, including the cragged melodic sense of Eric Dolphy, the dense intensity of Cecil Taylor’s monolithic free-form piano solos, and the sensitive yet far-reaching improvisational interplay of Anthony Braxton’s groups. But the members are also attempting to build more recent idioms.

Guitarist Todd Colburn’s use of distortion, feedback, and other rock techniques, bassist Kent Kessler’s deft use of funk grooves, drummer Michael Zerang’s knowledge of Middle Eastern music, and Vandermark’s familiarity with contemporary classical composers are all melded into a cohesive signature sound. “I think our instrumentation is analogous to the quartet sound of the 50s,” says Kessler. “We’re trying to merge that sound with some of the influences of the last 30 years.”

There’s no doubt this is a contemporary jazz ensemble. The members engage in collective free improvisation; they dispense with chord changes and conventional harmony; their melodic ideas are dissonant, often employing wide interval jumps and abrupt rhythmic shifts; and they explore nonjazz sources, including ethnic music.

Each of the band members is a prolific writer. Kessler, the bassist in the late Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble, writes tunes that, not surprisingly, tend to be rhythm oriented and groove generated, occasionally echoing some of Mingus’s work. Colburn, who also teaches at the AACM music school, and Zerang, a founder of the local experimental group Liof Munimula, tend to contribute more open, freer pieces.

But Vandermark composes most of the group’s numbers, leaning toward elaborate, unconventional forms that encourage frenetic improvisations. “I’m interested in trying out new forms instead of the old tune-solos-tune structure,” he says. “I want to try different procedures to encourage different playing contexts. My writing is more about counterpoint than chordal harmony. I use a lot of intervallic leaps that create stabbing dissonances that then set up rhythms within the rhythm of the larger piece.”

Yet jazz is fundamentally about improvisation, not composition. All the theory and formal ideas in the world don’t add up to squat if you can’t improvise. This group can. Their improvisational skills are solid, and they aren’t timid about challenging each other. “Free improvisation is the most demanding music you can perform,” says Zerang. “And when musicians can’t pull it off, it shows. It’s embarrassing. So you owe it to yourself and your audience to do it well. This group is good about that.” Whether performing a free-form exercise like “Exploding Note Theory” or a more traditional composition in metered time like “Courtesy Desk,” the members of this quartet usually play within the context of the piece and respond sensitively to what the other players are doing. The result is a kind of musical colloquy rather than the fragmented discord of flailing egos some free-music groups are guilty of.

This technically proficient group is also developing a reputation for the intensity of its performances. There’s a visceral quality to their playing that seldom relaxes, which may explain why they’ve been booked into more rock-oriented venues such as Club Lower Links and Lounge Ax. Even delicate, restrained pieces like “Last Date,” let alone aural assaults like “Jack Kirby Was Ripped Off,” maintain a power that keeps you riveted.

The Vandermark Quartet will play at HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee, at 9 PM Tuesday, May 25. (They’ll also play there every Tuesday in July.) Tickets are $5, or “whatever you can afford”; call 235-2334.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.