Vandermark’s driving force keeps Powerhouse Sound in the groove

By Eric Benson

Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark is the great populist of avant-garde jazz. When most listeners think of the diverse music grouped under the avant-garde umbrella, grating dissonance, atonal improvisations, and general confusion come to mind.

Vandermark’s music has always been of a different breed—exuberant, playful, groove-based—anchoring his groups in the familiar shoals of hard-bop, funk, and R&B.

Vandermark’s generous populism has found a new outlet with Powerhouse Sound, a rambunctious band featuring Vandermark, guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer John Herndon. On Wednesday night, the group took the stage at The Hideout for the release party of their recently minted double album Oslo/Chicago: Breaks (the Oslo disc features a different incarnation of Powerhouse Sound with Vandermark, McBride, and three Norwegian musicians).

Befitting its name, Powerhouse Sound played with a raucous intensity that was as much rock as it was jazz. This is a jazz band with a power guitar trio embedded in it. Parker has a laid-back demeanor on guitar, but he wasn’t averse to the occasional shredding solo. Herndon—with tattooed forearms, greasy shoulder-length locks, and a stout frame—looked, and often sounded, like a metal drummer moonlighting in a different environment. And McBride, a staple of the Chicago improvised music scene, laid down the band’s intoxicating bass riffs with appropriate swagger.

Weaving through this funk-rock riffing was Vandermark’s big tenor growl. The powerful rhythm section may have fostered the music’s soul, but it was Vandermark who gave the proceedings focus. When he played, the music snapped with earthy vitality, and when he dropped out, something of the music’s propulsive force subsided. Without Vandermark’s horn, Parker dominated the music. His solos eschewed improvisatory pyrotechnics for textural complexity, often leading to an exciting agitation but sometimes causing the music to become mired in a thicket of muddy sounds. Yet these unfocused moments proved fleeting. The few times the music descended toward sonic mush, the band would refocus its energy as Vandermark’s sax reentered in all its strutting glory.

Powerhouse Sound’s music, at once earthy and experimental, found a perfect home in The Hideout’s delightfully grungy confines. With mounted fish, tearing posters, and, bizarrely, a blown-up photocopy of the Vietnam-era draft card of the University’s own Dean of Admissions, Ted O’Neill, The Hideout has a down-home, roadhouse vibe that feels more like the outskirts of Austin than the North Side of Chicago. A lot of bands would probably feel comfortable in these casual environs, but Powerhouse Sound seemed endemic to the place, almost as if they had materialized out of the plywood walls. Vandermark himself served as DJ between sets, spinning a series of Cuban records and furthering the laid-back intimacy of the evening.

As a roadhouse funk-jazz collective, Powerhouse Sound is as good as it gets. On “Acid Scratch pt. 2,” one of the night’s most satisfying numbers, McBride played a greasy ’70s cop movie riff as the rest of the band entered with the same hyper-cool demeanor. After starting the groove, the music moved into more improvisational territory with Parker’s distortion effects sliding under Vandermark’s sputtering sax shards. On “Coxsonne,” another catchy McBride bass riff ushered in a laid-back tune that had Vandermark digging into the depths of his tenor sounds and allowed Parker more room for his static distortions. “Shocklee” began with a fervid duet between Vandermark and Herndon, with each musician blasting away—not in a game of one-upsmanship but rather in a shared enthusiasm for the music swirling about them. “Old Dictionary,” the night’s final number, was also its best with yet another heavy bass groove giving way to an impassioned Vandermark solo.

This was fun music that snapped with consistent buoyancy, but it wasn’t big on emotional resonance. Yet, in the last solo of the last song with the night waning and the club growing tired, Vandermark grunted and groaned in a naked moment that left behind the punchy riffs that characterized the evening in favor of a pure lyrical beauty.

That solo served as a reminder that Vandermark’s music can often be more substantial and more demanding than Powerhouse Sound. In his collaborations with German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and his own flagship group The Vandermark 5, there’s a feverish immediacy that the music of Powerhouse Sound lacked. Yet what it lacked in depth, Powerhouse Sound made up for in tenacity and verve. The more serious music could wait for another night; this was a celebration of that music that makes you groove and grin.