Somnambule - Writing About Music

FME (Paal Nilssen-Love, Nate McBride, Ken Vandermark)

The Vortex, 9th May 2004

After more than 20 years on north London’s Stoke Newington Church Street, the Vortex is relocating to nearby Dalston and it’s going out with a yell rather than a whimper by inviting a number of relatively big names to play its swansong. Tonight FME deliver their eulogy as the first stop on an 11 date European tour. The group are named for John Stevens’s Spontaneous Music Ensemble, though on tonight’s evidence this would appear to be more homage than reflection of musical practice. FME are a trio comprising Chicago resident Ken Vandermark on reeds, a player who should need little introduction given his leadership of the high profile Vandermark 5, amongst a host of other projects; drummer Paal Nilssen-Love may well be level-pegging in terms of profile due to a recent Wire article, stints with Atomic and Scorch Trio, and an Image of Ken Vandermarkongoing series of duo releases; Bostonian bass player Nate McBride may be the least well-known of the trio though his work with Joe Morris and the recent Zu and Spaceways Inc will be familiar to some.

After a brief hello to the audience the trio launch into the acute angles and driving passages of Sono. Almost immediately all three players metamorphose into bent-backed, red-faced figures whose movements are rigid with intense concentration. The glasses and bottles bedecking our table are literally in danger of being knocked over, such is the Image of Nate McBridevigour of the music. After 10 minutes or so the music takes a sudden left turn into the crepescular. Despite amplification McBride’s bass had been somewhat drowned out by his colleagues, but his playing is now revealed to be lithe, exact and confident. Vandermark exchanges tenor for clarinet, an instrument from which he extracts a plummy, trembling sound. All the while, Nilssen-Love’s snareshots are so sharp it seems they might inflict amputations on the unwary and a friend had already remarked rather nervously on the number of spare drumsticks Paal has packed.

After the music comes to a shuddering halt, Vandermark introduces the next track ‘Meer’ as a ballad from an FME cd Image of Paal Nilssen-Love“available at all major stores”; the irony of his remark certainly isn’t lost on the audience. Meer is McBride’s composition and he unravels a smokey, noir-like thread with which the others bind themselves. Nilssen-Love underscores proceedings by making a small cymbal sing like a spirit at a séance, before launching into a short, but captivating solo using only a metal chain.

Image of Ken VandermarkKen Vandermark’s playing is a mixture of oncoming juggernaut whose brakes have failed, and injured brontosaur as he snatches little musical figures and pounds them repeatedly into submission. Vandermark’s metier is the mid to lower ranges which he explores with great variety and creativity. On both baritone and tenor he plays skronky honks which fly into sudden funky twists and turns. Nate McBride supplies a supple warmth which underpins and connects his colleagues. Throughout much of the concert Paal Nilssen-Love’s gaze appears inward-looking in concentration while he seems to sing or coax the beats through clenched, half open mouth. He’s an astonishing player able to turn on the head of a pin from sharp, shortlived grooves which imply whole worlds, to expressive soundscaping more reminiscent of the best free improv Image of Nate McBridepercussionists. Together FME create spare, distinct shapes reminiscent of pollarded trees: there’s no extraneous foliage to obscure their intent, every note and beat is made to count. This is no gentle minimalism however, and all three play with an intensity that is forceful, convincing and often ferocious. At the end of their two sets they depart sweating and visibly winded, as do some of the audience.

Colin Buttimer
Published by Me