How "free" is free improvisation? VisionLive (Thirsty Ear Recordings), a commanding compilation of live performances from NYC's annual Vision Festival, recently arrived in the mail with a hype-laden one sheet touting the idea of "freedom music." Apart from a couple of too-hasty fadeouts, VisionLive presents a typically East Coast, world-spanning vision of freely improvising musicians working toward "freedom music," the seamless, soulful integration of any and all musical styles at any desired time. Listening to this disc, especially the Ellen Christi Quartet's alluring "Synchronicity," you feel as if North Africa and India lie just over the mountains, a short road trip away.

By contrast, saxophonist Ken Vandermark and his Vandermark 5 offer another take on free improvisation. Fathered in noisy, blare-it-so-the-drunks-can-hear-it Chicago bars like the Empty Bottle, the Vandermark 5 fuse the delicate let's-treasure-this-lonely-sound-for-a-long-time abstraction so common to European free improvisation with an up-front, visceral playing rooted in rhythm and blues. Call it Midwest working-class free improv, the kind of gig to which you can shepherd a wary friend without ruing the consequences.

For a foretaste of the Vandermark 5, their latest record, Airports for Light (Atavistic), definitely merits a listen. With funky, squonky brass lines and rackety drumming reminiscent of early-1970s Soft Machine, Airports slinks out of your speakers with seductive solos and bluesy melodic lines. Indeed, the only drawback to the album is the damn cursive text, which makes the titles impossible to read, a stark contradiction to the Vandermark 5's down-to-earth, no-bullshit sound. CHRISTOPHER DeLAURENTI

The Vandermark 5 play Sun July 6 (Tractor Tavern, 5213 Ballard Ave NW, 547-6763) at 8:30 pm, $12.

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