logo  Avant, #8 Summer 1998: Sweet Home Chicago by Brian Marley

Sweet Home Chicago: Ken Vandermark has an incredible thirst for music, and he drinks until the bottle is empty.

No-one could accuse Ken Vandermark of being diffident or lazy. Since moving to Chicago in 1989 he’s been a tireless instigator of musical activity, bringing together musicians from diverse genres such as rock, r&b, punk-jazz, free improvisation and, of course, his first and perhaps most enduring love, jazz. He has guested with a number of the city’s wig-out rock and r&b ensembles such as The Coctails, The Crown Royals, Waste Kings, the Denison/Kimball Trio, and, most notably, The Flying Luttenbachers (who also recorded with Hal Russell), but nowadays he prefers to be the host. Aside from the important role he plays in the post-Hal Russell NRG Ensemble, which is stewarded by Mars Williams, since 1992 his ensembles have included The Vandermark Quartet, Caffeine (with Jim Baker and Steve Hunt), the Steelwool Trio (with Kent Kessler and Curt Newton), the Barrage Double Trio, Cinghiale (with Mars Williams), the Standards Project, FJF (with Mats Gustafsson, Kent Kessler, and Steve Hunt), the DKV Trio (with Kent Kessler and Hamid Drake), Steam, and the Vandermark 5. Some of these groups are ongoing, several have bitten the dust, but each has recorded at least one CD of original and often excellent material.

Although he’s moved on both as a composer and an instrumentalist, and no longer finds his work with the Vandermark Quartet satisfying, the group’s piratical swagger, film-noir themes and volcanic solos are irresistible. The couple of discs they recorded for Platypus are hard to get hold of, but do try, they’re well worth the effort. Some of that group’s musical concerns are picked up and subjected to considerable refinement by the Vandermark 5, and their recordings for Atavistic are possibly the best things Vandermark has done. His compositions draw on a wide range of sources (often indicated by track-by-track dedications, a la Steve Lacy), and his ability to integrate them seamlessly into memorable and highly-personalised forms is a sign of growing maturity. Vandermark’s compositions stand head and shoulders above the identikit, off-the-peg, sampled-to-death music that currently swamps the market.

I talked with him in June ’98, just before he embarked on a short tour with the Vandermark 5, and like all good story-tellers, we started at the beginning...

Was tenor sax your first instrument?

Actually, I started off with a trumpet and switched to tenor in high school. I’ve been playing music since elementary school, but I only got serious about it when I was at the university in Montreal studying film. By the time I graduated I’d decided that I wanted to devote myself to music. In the United States the options are to have a day job and play at night, or try to become a professional musician, which means you do weddings and things like that which really didn’t interest me at all. [laughs] So I worked at a convenience store and a hardware store in Boston. I was doing stuff with a trio called Lombard Street [which included Curt Newton, latterly of Debris and the Joe Morris Trio] back in ’86 through ’89. But when I moved to Chicago it took a really long time to find musicians to hook up with. Eventually I did some stuff with Hal Russell when Mars Williams was out of the band for a while.

It must have been difficult to step into his shoes. He’s a phenomenal musician.

Well, I think part of it was being ignorant, and not realising what was going on. [laughs] I didn’t really know what I was getting into, you know.

Presumably you’d heard some NRG Ensemble recordings?

No. I wasn’t aware of a lot of the music happening in Chicago, the stuff Hal was doing, what Fred Anderson was doing. I knew about the AACM, the Art Ensemble, Muhal Richard Abrams — those guys were famous... I went into the NRG Ensemble audition and I guess they kinda liked the energy I had, the attitude or whatever. I did stuff with Hal until Mars came back. The scene in Chicago at that point was extremely cliquish. It’s changed a little bit now. People are more aware of each other and tend to work together, or at least be more open to what other people are doing.

The AACM has attracted the criticism that it tends to be cliquish.

The AACM makes it difficult to be involved if you’re not a black musician. You can do stuff at the school, but the bands themselves... I don’t think any of their groups include white musicians. It’s a race issue the AACM has created, for reasons I can understand on one hand, and I wish it would change on the other. But there are certain people within that group I’ve done work with.

Ari Brown.

Yeah, I’ve played with Ari, he’s a great guy, a fantastic musician. And Harrison Bankhead. And people who aren’t part of the AACM really, like Hamid Drake and Fred Anderson. The AACM present Fred when they have festivals, because he was one of the prime movers when the organisation started. In general, I find musicians who aren’t associated with the AACM are a lot more open-minded. I also realise that I’m privileged in that I don’t have to take race into account nearly as much as they do. If I take a gig I can take it because of the music, I don’t have to worry about politics. Music isn’t necessarily the best way to get across a political agenda. I’ve tried to create situations where AACM bands and bands that aren’t associated with that group play on the same bill. There shouldn’t be all these issues separating the musicians.

You’ve been running a club for some time with the writer John Corbett, the Empty Bottle. Is that still happening?

Uh-huh. It’s been more than two years now. We just had our second festival at the beginning of May. It’s provided, on a consistent basis, an outlet for music from outside Chicago. It’s been fantastic for the music scene ’cause of the cross-pollination of ideas. We can see people play from all over the place and say, "Holy mackerel, look what they’re doing in Sweden!" and take those ideas and steal them. [laughs]

Well, you seem to have stolen Mats Gustafsson. He works with you a lot.

Yeah. He’s amazing. Have you heard the AALY Trio record that we did?

No, not yet.

Check that out. It’s more in line with FJF. It shows a different side of Mats’ playing — free-jazz rather than free-improv. That group is absolutely mind-boggling. Kjell Nordeson, the drummer, and the bass player, Peter Janson, are just incredible.

They’re musicians I’ve never come across.

That’s one of the great things about the Empty Bottle series: seeing these musicians you’ve never heard before, and realising how strong the scene is internationally. There have been more than a hundred concerts at the Empty Bottle, and the festival was really successful this year. We made all the money to cover the musicians’ fees from what came through the door; there was no corporate or grant funding at all. The audience has been growing since ’92. It’s a really strong and well-educated audience. They’ve seen huge amounts of music from all over the place, and they’re really supportive. I get to play on average about three times a week in Chicago. We don’t make any money, but we cover our cab costs and maybe make enough to have a few beers.

Despite your fundamental interest in jazz, your groups often have an ensemble sound that’s nearer to rock music.

There are definitely elements of that, particularly in the Vandermark 5. There are things about certain kinds of music that I find extremely interesting and attractive to use. The people I play with most, Tim [Mulvenna] and Kent [Kessler], we spend a lot of time talking about it. We aspire to work and perform on the level of the bands we really love: the Clifford Brown/Max Roach group, or the Ellington group, or Ornette’s and Coltrane’s quartets. They had an aesthetic based on working together, a group sensibility. So what we need to do, aside from rehearse and talk about ideas, is to be out there dealing with them and playing the music live.

Steam and the Steelwool Trio are more explicitly a part of the jazz continuum than the Vandermark 5. I know the trio is defunct, but will Steam be doing another record?

We’ve been talking about it for a while. Georg Gräwe wanted to do a record with Steam for his label, Random Acoustics. But we need to work on the music in performance, and that’s not possible. No venue in Chicago right now has a piano. Jim Baker [also of Caffeine] has an electric piano set-up, but it’s really not very satisfying sound-wise. Jim’s one of the most under-rated musicians in Chicago. Part of the idea behind Steam was to get to work with him.

It would be nice to hear the other material in the band’s repertoire — compositions by Dolphy, Ornette, and so on. I’d be particularly interested to hear your take on Dolphy’s tunes, because his style of playing is so different from yours.

I agree. And Dolphy is an amazing composer. You play "Miss Ann", and when you come out of that head you just wanna play; it’s set up a trajectory and fired you out into the unknown, and with a lot of momentum. There’s a big difference, I think, between great composing for improvisation and great through-composed music. Sometimes people get confused about these differences. "East Broadway Rundown" is a great composition for improvisation. Or "Take the Coltrane", that Ellington tune. It’s such a simple — [sings several bars] — that’s it; but, man, when that’s run its course you have so many rhythmic and melodic implications. There’s a complexity to it that allows room for lots of interpretation. And Dolphy’s music doesn’t have to be played the way Dolphy played it. Obviously, he may be the greatest interpreter of it ’cause he wrote it, but there are implications he never touched upon.

Same with Monk. That’s why Steve Lacy is such a great interpreter. It’s botch Lacy and Monk when he plays. You work with strong rhythms and subtle nuances. I imagine you’re pretty good with Monk.

Yeah, his music is very much about rhythm. From my standpoint, the rhythmic aspect is so important. I’ve learned that from listening to players like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins will do stuff in a tonal centre that harmonically or melodically is so odd, I mean extremely dissonant. And Lester Young will land on these notes, and they’ll be like GRONK [makes a dissonant noise], and you say, "Holy shit, I can’t understand what this guy is doing." But he makes it work through the motion and the rhythm of the line. His insistent GRONK DE-GRONK GRONK GRONGRONK [dissonant noises rhythmically inflected] is the same as Monk jabbing the keyboard. It’s an expression of the implications of rhythm. Bebop, too, isn’t just a revolution in harmony, it’s a revolution in rhythm. You get a lot of that in James Brown’s music, and it’s very attractive. You hear it in delta blues before the music got codified into 12-bar form. These people would speed up and slow down, but it’s so expressive and utterly personal. The music is about rhythm in many ways; it’s what I like to focus on.

It’s noticeable in the way you launch into solos, as if the first couple of bars have been lopped off. Suddenly you’re in there and going full-tilt.

Yeah, yeah. That’s about energy and tight rhythms. But it’s also part of Hal Russell’s legacy, isn’t it? Actually, I’m glad you brought that up because... this’ll be hard to get across without slighting Hal, and I’m definitely not, I’ve got a lot of respect for his music, more than I did when I was dealing with it first-hand. But I was more influenced by things before I came to Chicago — Joe McPhee, Joe Morris, Ornette Coleman. Part of what I didn’t like about Hal’s music was the way he controlled things. You could be in the middle of a solo, and if Hal was bored he would change it. In retrospect, it’s an interesting way to approach the music. His sensibility was so odd you couldn’t predict what he would do, and that kept the music spontaneous and fresh. Hal — and this is to his credit — was a musician of immense personality. But the perception that he had a lot of influence on the musicians is basically a mistake. Kent Kessler and Mars Williams had a great impact on Hal’s music. That thing you mentioned about starting past the beginning of the solo comes more out of Dolphy, or the intensity of Cecil Taylor, than Hal’s extreme use of jump-cuts and shifts. I’m very interested in having things come out of the improviser’s stance. If Kent’s taking a solo I prefer to let Kent make the decisions. If he decides, "OK, I’ve said what I want to say," that’s better than me saying, "You’re done." Because a lot of the time I find that improvisers, if they’re good improvisers, will do things that surprise me, and they should be given the freedom to do that. Whereas with Hal the aesthetic was dictated by his attention span. That was sometimes very frustrating to work with. Some nights he’d let you solo on and on, and you’d be confused by that, you kept waiting for him to cut you out. Other nights you’d play three notes and all of a sudden the tune was over.

Back in the days of Calling All Mothers you were still doing a few of Hal’s pieces. But on This is My House and the new NRG disc there aren’t any Hal Russell compositions. Was that a deliberate policy?

It was more about trying to document the stuff we were playing well at that time. When we first regrouped we’d pull tunes from Hal’s book and say, "Let’s try this one," and we couldn’t play them because of the way the melodies were phrased; we couldn’t imitate Hal doing it. And we decided not to do some of Hal’s music on the later recordings. The NRG Ensemble was begun, developed and set on course by Hal, but since his passing we’ve been guided by a different set of principles.

I think it’s a better group now. Some of the tracks on Bejazzo are terrific. Not just your compositions, things by Mars, too. "Cakewalk", for example, which brings out Brian Sandstrom’s guitar in a new way. Hal used Brian’s guitar as a kind of musical cement mixer — Yeah. [laughs] — it churned and churned and then something else happened. But now he’s incorporating delicate little noodling figures, things like that, and it’s really expanded what he’s capable of doing with the group.

Definitely, definitely. You see, Hal also had an interest in things that wouldn’t work, things that would fail. For fifteen minutes we were expected to go GRONK-GRONK-GRONK-GRONK-GRONK [dissonant noises of plodding, unvarying metricality]. We’d do it ’cause it was his band. But now, if something doesn’t grab Mars in the first ten seconds, he’s not gonna do it. That’s part of the reason why Mars elected to have only our own stuff on the new record, and in that way sever the tie to Hal. Even now there are people who write about the things we do as if they’ve been generated by Hal.

After all these years? That must be really irritating.

Yeah, but that’s not to slight Hal, it’s not a criticism of him. It’s about the critics. I see what I do as an extension of this amazing music, so I have a responsibility when I pick up the horn and play. It’s not just fuckin’ around. I’ve got a whole stack of great saxophone players on my back [laughs], and it’s a great thing to be tied to that incredible tradition. The same should go for the people who write about it. If they don’t have that sense of responsibility and respect, they shouldn’t be writing at all; they end up doing a huge disservice to the music, the musicians, and themselves. Getting a bad review is fine, I’ve had tons of bad reviews, but it’s just as frustrating to get a good but ignorant review. I’m pretty young, I can say, "Well, screw it." But people have written stuff about Fred Anderson that completely maligned him in print.

The Fred Anderson/DKV Trio disc was superb.

That was an immensely important project for me. Fred’s coming out of a serious blues tradition, the bending of notes, the phrasing, the stopping and starting and rhythmic motion. He’ll hit a B-flat incredibly flat, and he’ll hit it the same way each time, and to play well with him I have to match his tuning. It’s a real challenge. But for people to say he’s playing out of tune is an incredible insult. No-one says that about Joe Maneri.

You said the Vandermark 5’s first release, Single Piece Flow, was "effective". Why only effective?

I think we should have waited longer before doing that record. The band got together in the Spring of ’96, and my expectation, based on other projects, was that we’d need six months of playing and rehearsing. I’d played with Tim and Kent in Steam and we clicked, there was no problem. I play with Mars all the time. Jeb Bishop is an extremely fine musician, and I’d done other stuff with him. So I though, "This should be a piece of cake." But when we played we discovered there was an extremely different rhythmic sensibility in the group. I tend to centre on the beat, Jeb tends to hang back, and Mars is extremely on top. So what would happen is we’d play the heads and they’d be fine, we’d go into the solos and Mars would push the beat way, way over, and the rhythm section would try to accommodate that. Then Jeb would take his solo and it’d be mayhem. To get a unified approach took a really long time. I don’t think the first record is bad, not at all, but it probably would’ve been wiser to spend a little more time. Shortly after that we started a series of performances at the Empty Bottle, and very quickly the band zeroed in on what it was supposed to do... The second record is, I feel, extremely strong. I was better able to write for the band, I had a better sense of what the band was about.

Were the compositions written for those particular musicians?

Sure, and on the first record too. The idea of the quintet is that I can do more involved writing.

The compositions on Target or Flag are more sophisticated than the pieces you wrote for the Vandermark Quartet. It’s an ensemble sound created as much by the compositions as by tight rehearsal.

I’m glad that comes across. It’s my idea to tackle difficult or complex material and not have it sound difficult or complex, to get inside the music and let it breathe. I think maybe we pulled it off with Target. Unfortunately, because of the time Mars has to devote to Liquid Soul [his Acid Jazz group], he’s had to leave the band. He’s been replaced by an alto player, Dave Rempis, from Chicago, who’s been with us since March. Dave’s playing is — to oversimplify — somewhere in between Eric Dolphy and Lee Konitz. He has an interesting approach and a really strong personality. But I’m still doing stuff with Mars — Witches and Devils [a band devoted to the music of Albert Ayler], Cinghiale [an Italian word meaning "the wild hog"]... I’m generally very fortunate in the things I get to do, but the last year has been unbelievably exciting. I got to play with Evan Parker. Stuff with Mats and the AALY Trio. I did a recording with Joe Morris and DKV that’ll be out on OkkaDisk in the fall. There’s an amazing amount of stuff going on, and the music is so exciting.

This may take us back to where we started, but... when, as a musician, did you first realise you were good?

Maybe back in ’92, when the Vandermark Quartet started and was received with enthusiasm — that had an impact. At that point, had I been asked, I would’ve said, "Yeah, I feel like I’m a good player." But looking back on it, when I hear those records, I can’t listen to them. It’s like, "Oh God, what was I thinking about!" That’s a healthy sign, because it indicates that my ideas are changing and developing. Also, when I get to play with people I absolutely revere — Mats, Joe McPhee, Evan Parker — and felt like I didn’t embarrass myself, that I was able to hold my own and contribute musically. That was when I started to feel I had something to say that was worthwhile. Maybe I’m not playing on the level I want to, and maybe I’m not playing on the level of the musicians I’m playing with, but I feel I’ve got enough personality to express something interesting, I can contribute — that’s the biggest thing.


When I talked with Vandermark for the second time, at the end of July, he told me that his six-year association with the NRG Ensemble had come to an end. Nothing to do with musical differences as such, he was just ready to move on. It makes NRG’s latest release, the pugilistically-inclined Bejazzo Gets a Facelift (Atavistic ALP73), an item to savour. He also talked about the possibility of touring the UK in December with either the Vandermark 5 or the DKV Trio. Gigs are currently being arranged in Scotland and Newcastle upon Tyne, and sought elsewhere. If he comes to a venue near you, try to see him.

Because his discography is extensive, and some of the material (on Eighth Day, for example) is no longer available, or extremely hard to find (Platypus), I decided to ask him to nominate his best recordings. Some were recorded under his own leadership, on others he’s a major contributor:
NRG Ensemble - Calling All Mothers (Quinnah 05)
Barrage Double Trio - Utility Hitter (Quinnah 09)
DKV Trio/Fred Anderson (OkkaDisk 014)
Vandermark 5 - Target or Flag (Atavistic ALP106)
AALY Trio + Ken Vandermark - Hidden in the Stomach (Silkheart 149)
The Peter Brötzmann Chicago Octet/Tentet (OkkaDisk 022)

While certainly not disagreeing with his choices, mine would include:
Vandermark Quartet - Big Head Eddie (Platypus PP001)
Steelwool Trio - International Front (OkkaDisk 005)
Buy any of these discs and you’re guaranteed quality listening.