logo  Carbon 14, #11: Ken Vandermark by Larry (?)

I don’t know if it’s an essential element of success, but one of the hallmarks of the "new" jazz musician in the ’90s seems to be the ability to play in a number of different groups with an equally staggering number of permutations as energy and creativity will allow; each taking a different direction to get down the same road. Case in point: Ken Vandermark. The Chicago-based sax (and clarinet) player has immersed himself in almost as many projects as he has fingers. (No, he’s not missing any!) As a (de facto) leader he’s got his main group of the moment, the Vandermark 5 (a quintet whose debut CD, Single Piece Flow, has recently been released by Atavistic); the DKV Trio (which also features bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Hamid Drake); Steam (a quartet with Kessler, Tim Mulvenna on drums and Jim Baker on piano); the Barrage Double Trio (which includes Drake and Kessler along with Nate McBride [bass], Curt Newton [drums] and Mars Williams [sax and clarinet]), and a duo project with Williams called Cinghiale. As a featured player he’s also clocked time with the NRG Ensemble (since 1992), did a turn with free jazz experimentalists the Flying Luttenbachers (from ’92-’94), as well as guesting on stuff by the Denison/Kimball Trio and The Coctails. There’s a lot more, including the now-defunct Vandermark Quartet, but this is more than just a litany of how Ken Vandermark spends his professional time. The thing is, he plays the fuck out of the sax and is spearheading some of the more interesting new avenues for jazz to take in the future. The full-on blast of the Barrage Double Trio’s CD, Utility Hitter, is bouncing off the apartment walls right now; it’s got an almost metal/hardcore-like level of intensity that refuses to let go until your head’s been shaken around like you’re checking a cantaloupe for ripeness. It’s this aptly named barrage of "new" sounds that’s bringing lots of new converts from the underground rock world into the Vandermark camp (if not into the entire sphere of "new" jazz), people who are actively looking for something different are taking more than a long listen to a number of the Vandermark-related groups. All of the things that jazz traditionalists hated about the music throughout the ’60s and ’70s (which was, basically, anything experimental or "free") are the exact same things that are giving it a newfound audience in the ’90s. It’s no wonder "rock" labels like Skin Graft have begun issuing records by the Flying Luttenbachers and that the audience for live performances by these groups/artists is definitely populated by a healthy share of people crossing over from a "rock" crowd. This is not something that’s gone unnoticed to the likes of Vandermark, who knows that the future of jazz relies on bringing in new audiences who are willing to take chances with what they listen to and support, and he’s making real efforts to broaden the scope of his (and jazz in general’s) audience; his "dream" concert would involve jazz, rock and classical all on the same bill in a (musical) barrier-breaking event. Maybe the future of jazz lies in the open minds of rock fans.

Carbon 14: At this point, how many active ensembles or groups are you in or do you have? And of those, how many are you the leader?

Ken Vandermark: Well, that I’m directly involved in, there’s obviously the Vandermark 5; a group called Steam, which is a quartet; the DKV Trio. Those are the three primary things I’m trying to focus on this year. ’Cause last year things got a little out of hand; I was doing all this stuff and I really didn’t feel like I was on top of shit. But I’m still doing stuff with the NRG Ensemble.

C14: Actually, that’s how I was first exposed to you, through them.

KV: A lot of people have heard that group, that’s still going and I’m still doing stuff with them. They don’t play out quite as much because the guy who is the ostensible leader, Mars Williams, has been real busy with this acid jazz band he’s in called Liquid Soul, and he hasn’t been able to do as much. So I’ve been doing stuff with him, I’ve also been doing stuff with this group called Witches and Devils, which is also led by Mars, and that group does Albert Ayler’s music. And I’m in an instrumental R&B group called The Crown Royals, that does original Booker T/Meters type stuff.

C14: So the Cinghiale [I’m pronouncing it sing-hale] was a one-off?

KV: Oh, that’s actually pronounced chin-golly, no one can get it right, it’s Italian.

C14: Oh, I thought it was Irish or Celtic.

KV: That kinda makes sense. Actually that group is doing stuff, we’re going to be playing at the Knitting Factory’s festival in June. We’re actually going to start working on material for a new recording, we’re planning on putting that together and writing stuff.

C14: For Cinghiale?

KV: Yeah. So that one kind of is in the same category as the NRG stuff; it’s kind of more irregular but still active. There’s probably some other stuff, but that’s the main ones I can think of.

C14: Are you also the leader in Steam?

KV: Well, I wouldn’t call myself the leader but I’m like the logistical leader.

C14: The coordinator. KV: Yeah, the coordinator.

C14: The guy who makes the phone calls.

KV: Exactly. But yeah, with that group Jim Baker and I co-write the material. I’m the guy who sets up the rehearsals and the gigs and stuff, but it’s more of a cooperative group.

C14: Is the new Vandermark 5 record on Atavistic the highest visibility and/or most widely distributed recording you’ve had out yet?

KV: I would have to say yes. I mean the fact that I’m talking to you and there’s some other people interested — and it’s just been out for two weeks. I think it’s already had a bigger impact in terms of exposure than the other records have had. I think the distribution and the kind of organizational machine they’ve got there [at Atavistic] is a little bit higher profile than the other labels I’ve worked with at this point.

C14: Having not been to Chicago, it seems from reading about it that there’s a real broad acceptance of the jazz scene from the underground and non-commercial music world there. Do you think that’s unique to Chicago? ’Cause I know you’re from Boston, which is considered by a lot of people to be a guitar player’s town (I don’t know whether that’s from Berklee or not), but did you find the type of jazz you play, or maybe just jazz in general, to be as widely accepted there as it is in Chicago? ’Cause you seem to have a never-ending stream of work.

KV: Yeah, I would think the scene in Chicago is pretty exceptional. I mean it’s weird to talk about it because I’m living her and it sounds like you’re plugging the scene or something, but based on my knowledge of having played in Boston and being aware of stuff (because it’s what I do and I’m supposed to be aware of stuff), the scene in Chicago is pretty exceptional in terms of the number of musicians and the number of opportunities to perform and the amount of music that comes in from out of town. Because it’s out in the middle of nowhere, for a while, a lot of musicians — particularly European or New York musicians or whatever national musicians — wouldn’t play here. They’d play on the West Coast or the East Coast ’cause you could put together a tour, so a lot of stuff didn’t end up coming through Chicago or if it did it was very irregular, like three times a year. But in the last year there’s been a series of concerts at this club called the Empty Bottle, that John Corbett and I have been putting together, and we’ve been able to get a lot of musicians from out of the country and from elsewhere in the United States to come through town, and that’s been a big change just in terms of creative energy, that’s had a huge impact. There are some great players in Boston, but the audiences are not real supportive and the media isn’t really supportive and there aren’t many places to play; every time I go back there it’s kind of depressing.

C14: Well Boston isn’t known as being a jazz town the Philly or New York is.

KV: That’s probably a part of it, it doesn’t really have a reputation. Which is weird, because there’s a lot of really great players. Joe Morris is there, Raphe Malik is there, and a bunch of others. When I grew up I saw a lot of that stuff happening, that’s kind of why I’m playing what I’m playing now. Seeing that music live really inspired me and had a huge impact on me. But at the same time, people, even in that town, aren’t aware of a lot of stuff that’s happening; whereas in Chicago there’s a lot more information out amongst the listeners and stuff.

C14: Well you had mentioned you guys are going to play in New York at the Knitting Factory thing. Outside of Chicago are you guys getting gigs and getting known in New York or Europe?

KV: Yeah, the most work has been in Europe.

C14: Kinda figures.

KV: Yeah, it’s the big irony; you can’t work in your home country... So most of the stuff we’ve done has actually been outside of the country. NRG just got back from Holland, we did a festival there last weekend, and different projects I’ve been in have gone to Finland and Sweden; mostly the German/Austrian area, but some stuff in Holland too. We’ve played a little bit more [in the US], I mean Cinghiale thing we’re doing in New York, that’ll be the first time I’ve played New York. The money has been so pitifully bad — they wanted NRG to play this festival and offered us $400, that was it. Toward expenses of travel. I don’t think I have a real high fee or anything like that, but you have to be able to at least break even! So Cinghiale’s doing it because they’re offering us the same money, and that’ll probably cover our plane tickets.

C14: That’s just the two of you guys.

KV: Yeah, just two of us. So we can probably fly out there and do the gig, and not make any money but at least get an opportunity to play. So that’s been the biggest problem in the US; people want you to play, but they want you to play for next to free. In Europe there’s a lot more, mostly government, support so a lot of clubs can bring people in and lot of festivals particularly can afford to fly people in. The travel thing in the United States is pretty prohibitive, it’s tough to travel eight hours from one city to another and then not get paid anything because the clubs can’t afford to do it. So playing in the United States is a little bit tough.

C14: I’ve noticed that, looking at the lineup of the Vandermark 5, there’s a few people who you seem to continue to like to work with, specifically Kent and Tim. Have you sort of gotten to a point now where you’ve worked with so many people you’re finding you’re getting to the point of having your ideal group?

KV: Yeah, I think that’s probably pretty accurate. Particularly in terms of working in Chicago and being familiar with the musicians here, the quintet is really the four other people that I really wanted to work with for that project. So being aware of the different kinds of players, and the problem is that with Mars being really busy we’ve been able to do a lot of gigs and work on the music, but there’s certain things that have come up where Mars can’t do it — we have this festival to play in Pittsburgh this June and we have to get someone to sub for him.

C14: How do you get someone to sub for a player like that?

KV: [laughing a bit] That’s the problem.

C14: That sort of leads to another question: with Cinghiale and the Vandermark 5, how much of it is improvised — straight, real improv, and how much of it is sketches that you play around; where you know what the starting and end points are and maybe where there’s a bridge somewhere, but the rest of it is free-form?

KV: I would say it’s more like what you just said, that maybe — like in the Vandermark 5 — 20 percent of the stuff is written or directed, and the rest of it is pretty much very open. There may be things like holding the time together through a solo or stuff like that, but most of the playing is very open in terms of what the soloists and the improvisers can do in different sections. The same thing is true with Cinghiale; most of the work I like to do is based on compositional or structural strategies to help get the improvising to different places it might not get to if it was always free. I mean I do a fair amount of free improv, which I also enjoy, but it’s interesting to kind of shove people into situations where they might not go into normally, and see what happens.

C14: Were you also in the Flying Luttenbachers for a time?

KV: Yeah, I actually played with them for probably about two years. I think I’m on one or two of the recordings that got put out.

C14: When you moved from Boston to Chicago were you already pretty much into the free "school" or were you playing more straight type stuff?

KV: I’ve never really been a straight-ahead player. I’ve never been involved with a band that did only chord change-oriented types of stuff. I’ve always been more interested in the outside/free jazz type of playing; so I was doing that in Boston as well.

C14: Do you find that now that there’s a burgeoning scene in Chicago the audience seems to be more of a crossover one; that you’re definitely bringing in some of the rock crowd, or at least the adventurous segment of the rock crowd?

KV: Yeah. It really depends on what group is playing and where they’re playing and stuff. When Peter Brötzmann was in town in January he did an octet project with seven people from Chicago, and he played at this club called the Empty Bottle, which is known as a rock club — aside from the stuff on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — and there were 300 people there and definitely two-thirds of the audience were out of a rock listening background, no question about it. So there’s crossover depending on the project, there’s people that are very into what’s going on. ’Cause I think there’s a certain kind of boredom with what’s happening in a lot of the rock stuff right now and people are interested in just hearing different things; stuff with more energy, I guess. I think that’s what attracts some of the listeners to the stuff we’re doing. It’s pretty driving.

C14: Yeah, it’s very full-on, very immediate.

KV: Yeah. I actually like a lot of rock stuff but right now, at least for me, there’s not a lot of rock stuff happening that I’m enjoying too much. I think in part because a lot of it is really intellectualized, and I don’t find it very enjoyable; it’s not very visceral right now. There’s exceptions, obviously, but a lot of stuff happening in town now tends to be a little bit like that too, and I think that some people who are into that quality of music are turning to some of the stuff we’re doing ’cause they can’t get it, y’know.

C14: To me what a lot of that "math rock" and "post rock" reminds me of is when fusion first came out and was really really cheesy. It was hip to be trendy and like it, but it was missing something.

KV: I would agree with that. I think some of the things they’re doing are things that are actually potentially really interesting, but it feels very cold to me; calculated, and not really involved.

C14: Kind of soulless.

KV: Yeah, it kind of feels that way to me. It’s kind of a harsh thing to say about what someone’s doing creatively, but just in terms of my response to it as a listener I kind of feel that way about a lot of it.

C14: Do you think that it’s slowly becoming more viable to play jazz in a rock world? I don’t know if it’s perceived commercial viability or just increased public acceptance, but do you think it’s becoming a better situation in general for jazz?

KV: Definitely. Everything goes in cycles, in terms of the way audiences react to things. I definitely think we’re in a cycle where younger listeners are coming out and checking stuff out, and are into it. I think it’s that crowd we’re talking about, between 20 and 35. Most of the people who come out and see our shows are not what you would call the traditional jazz listener, some of them are and they’re into it but, a lot of the people who come out and hear things are younger and are definitely interested in what’s going on. That’s why I think people like David Ware and Matthew Shipp and some of the stuff we’re doing is connecting, and why a label like Atavistic is even interested in what we’re doing. It’s really atypical with a lot of the stuff they’ve been putting out so far, but in a way it fits in with the kind of open-endedness in terms of possibilities, y’know, musically and the kinds of dissonance and density in some of the stuff they’ve been doing. So there’s a connection there. And I think that’s the same type of connection that the people who listen to that type of music are crossing over and checking out the records and concerts that are modern modern jazz oriented.

C14: Is the Steam record that’s out the first release for the group?

KV: Yeah.

C14: I noticed in the discography in Your Flesh that it mentions Steam covers works by other composers, whose works do you do on this one?

KV: On the first record what I wanted to do — and we talked about it and seemed to come to agreement about it — was only do our own compositions, and then on the next one we’ll probably feature a 50-50 split, which is more of what we do live. Because I didn’t want what happens when you send a record like that out for review, which is people always write about the stuff you’re doing by other people. They don’t understand that a group’s got its own aesthetic... and they just rate the group based on its interpretations of other people’s material. And I just wanted to have something out that’s its own thing, and whether people liked it or didn’t like it is based on what we’re doing with our own stuff — so we would kind of avoid that. Then on the next record, have it include the Dolphy and Sun Ra tracks and the other stuff we’re doing too. So people would realize it’s not just a cover band or something ridiculous like that.

C14: Do you play tenor and alto or just one sax?

KV: No, I only play tenor sax, and the clarinets — the bass clarinet and the B-flat clarinet.

C14: So right now do you have plans to go into the studio with any of your other groups?

KV: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in the studio over the last six months. There’s a bunch of stuff coming out. The DKV Trio has got three things coming out in May on OkkaDisk. I don’t think there’s any plans right now to go into the studio to do anything in particular. We’ve been talking about this Cinghiale thing and there’s a couple other projects I’ve got. I’ve been doing a trio thing with Robert Barry, who actually played with Sun Ra when he was still in Chicago — he’s phenomenal. And I’ve been real interested in trying to get that group developed and maybe hit the studio, because I’d like to document what we’re doing right now. But I think I’m gonna take a little bit of a break because I recorded a record with Mats Gustafsson in Sweden in December with his group, the AALY Trio; and that’s supposed to be out on Silkheart sometime this year. It just seems like I’ve been doing a lot of stuff in the studio and I just need to get out for a little while. I’ve been recording a lot and I’ve been very happy with the stuff that’s coming out, I feel like it’s all steps forward in terms of my own development and the development of the music I’m interested in playing and I kinda don’t wanna be just pumping out stuff just to get it out. Also, I’m kind of a little concerned about certain records slipping through the cracks because so many things will come out. Like a bunch of these records coming out now, like this Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler and myself in a trio; that was supposed to be out last fall or winter, we recorded it last February and it’s coming out in a few weeks. So there’s all these records coming out within like a three month period, and I know some of ’em are gonna disappear.

C14: Lost in the shuffle.

KV: Yeah, lost in the shuffle. I’m not really happy about that... it’s really great to record and do stuff, on the other hand I just don’t want to be pumping stuff out and have stuff get lost. I want to be pretty particular about doing stuff. Joe Morris and I have been talking about doing a couple of projects for a while and we’ll probably end up doing something this year, either in the summer or in the fall. So there’s a lot of stuff in the wings, but nothing with going into the studio in the next couple months or anything like that.

C14: Is the quintet the largest group you’ve worked with, or have you done anything with a really big ensemble like a double quartet or something along those lines?

KV: There was that double trio record, that was the biggest group. The quintet record is definitely the most involved group, because the double trio had two bassists and two drummers, so it wasn’t as involved as the quintet. That was more of a project, because two of those guys live in Boston so it’s next to impossible to do stuff. I was hoping to get some festival work with it, but so far that’s a record that fell through the cracks. I’m really happy with the music that’s on it but I’m really frustrated by the fact that the label was a little less than good at getting it to people.

C14: That’s something I noticed, not that it’s a knock against you or anything like that, but some of these labels are so bedroom that it almost does you a disservice.

KV: That’s one of the things I’m trying to contend with this year in my grand scheme of things, to try and figure out a way... like OkkaDisk has been really good and I really like working with Bruno, but it’s very frustrating with these people who, as you said, are kinda doing things out of their attic and are not really on top of the business end of things in terms of getting stuff to people and getting stuff to distributors. I mean sometimes I can’t even get my CDs in town if I want to, and that’s absurd. But the up-side of that is that some stuff has been documented that otherwise never would have been, and it does come out pretty punctually — usually within a year, at most, of recording it.

C14: So it’s not too stale.

KV: Right. Because what happens with some of these labels like Soul Note and Hat Art, it’s often years before some of this stuff comes out. The thought of doing a recording with a group then have it come out three years later, you’re lucky if the band is still together. So I’m trying to figure out a way to get in between the two. Where you get to a label that has better distribution and is more organized, like Atavistic... that’s a step in the right direction.

C14: What I was getting to also is that since for most of these really small labels these are one-off records, do you see an eventual point where that stuff all reverts back to you and, through some label like Atavistic, you’d eventually reissue a lot of this stuff — at least in a compilation/sampler format with a couple tracks from each release?

KV: I’ve never really thought about it that way. I know all the guys who put the records out pretty well so I don’t think it would be a problem getting rights to stuff to do that. But I haven’t really thought about it because I’m most interested in what I’m doing now, and the thought of going back and reissuing something — it’s probably not a bad idea, but it’s also one that I’m not really focused on as of yet.

C14: Aside from the New York thing with you and Mars is there any potential for any kind of Vandermark 5 touring?

KV: Yeah, there’s a possibility. Let’s see, we’re coming out to do something in Pittsburgh in June, and we’re gonna hit Cleveland on the way out, and that’s it because there’s only enough money to cover doing that — and we had to kind of fight for that too. I don’t know, I don’t mean to bitch, but the whole music business thing really...

C14: It sucks.

KV: It does. Really. I mean on one hand I can understand how if an unknown commodity like the quintet is going to play in a town where no one knows that much about it and its doing somewhat difficult music, it’s not commercially oriented; I can understand why people don’t want to put up a lot of money. But I also don’t understand how they can expect a group of five people to drive and then play for the door; ’cause these are all people who make a living playing. But in any case, Atavistic is trying to put together an Atavistic night at the Knitting Factory in July. Depending on what the money situation is like for that gig, we might try to do some kind of tour to connect three or four dates with that. I keep trying to figure out a way to do some kind of touring situation in the US, and it’s really tough.

C14: There’s no support the way there is in Europe.

KV: Yeah, that’s what it really comes down to... it’s really weird and unfortunate to get into it in terms of it’s about money. I don’t want to think of it in those terms but it’s a fundamental thing about trying to make a living. Not even trying to make a living but just trying to break even on the trip. And there are bands that’ll do it, they’ll play for free or for the door, so there are promoters who say "screw it." What’s really cool about what Matthew Shipp is doing is he’s getting out there with William Parker and all these different groups, and from what I understand from Joe Morris is he’s doing OK. He’s playing to good audiences and being paid decently for what he does, and that’s a great sign. It’s a sign that maybe some kind of conduit is being set up in this country, ’cause it has to happen at some point because the European situation is getting really ugly.

C14: Would you also do things like play with some avant rock acts on a tour or something like that: a more eclectic presentation?

KV: Oh yeah, totally. I have no problem whatsoever doing that. I’m interested in music, and the music I listen to and what I’ve got in my record collection ranges all over the place. I could care less, in a sense, as long as the band is cool. It would be great to do a tour with the quintet and some rock-oriented group, that would be a great kind of concert to have. I guess that’s a fantasy of mine, to put a festival together that’s a truly contemporary music festival; where you’d have the Arditti String Quartet, I don’t know, [Anthony] Braxton, Fugazi, whatever. Put ’em all in one room together, let ’em play and let audiences see all this shit and let ’em make their own decisions about it instead of having somebody tell them what’s cool and what’s not.