logo  Chicago Reader, 4/4/97: Home of the Free by Peter Margasak

Nowadays reedist Ken Vandermark might seem like the closest thing Chicago’s bustling avant-garde music community has to an institution, but just five years ago, the Boston native was dismayed enough to pack his bags for home. "I played with lots of different people, but it was hard to find musicians who were supportive of what I wanted to do," says Vandermark, now 32. "It was cool if I just played in other groups, but when I had my own ideas, no one was interested." Percussionist Michael Zerang, a longtime scene fixture and then a member of the fledgling Vandermark Quartet, convinced him to stick it out another year — and what followed constitutes a significant chapter in the city’s musical history.

The remarkable proliferation of free jazz, improvised music, and other experimental activity here in recent years can’t be explained by a single factor, but Vandermark’s persistence and willingness to play under less-than-ideal circumstances—bad sound, poor promotion, low attendance — have been integral to the scene’s health. His quartet’s incendiary, relentlessly edgy, almost weekly performances at HotHouse between 1993 and 1995 attracted lots of curious listeners, many of whom were bored with rock but knew little about jazz, and helped open minds all over town to challenging music.

HotHouse lost its lease and its momentum in 1995, and the Vandermark Quartet split up in 1996, but since then regular, respectably attended concerts in the same vein at the Lunar Cabaret, the Empty Bottle, Oak Park’s Unity Temple, and Urbus Orbis, along with more-grassroots activity at spots like Myopic Books and 6 Odum, have shown that the scene is not only alive but quite well.

A few years ago, Vandermark was giving his all to as many as six distinct projects, but lately he’s been concentrating on just three: the Vandermark 5 (whose debut album, Single Piece Flow, came out on Atavistic this week), Steam, and the DKV Trio. Although he still maintains membership in the NRG Ensemble; loose, largely improvisational collaborations such as Caffeine, Steelwool Trio, the Barrage Double Trio, and Cinghiale; and the instrumental R&B outfit the Crown Royals, Vandermark claims he’s made a concerted effort to stop spreading himself so thin.

"I’ve tried to focus harder on who I really want to play with and on which projects are the most fruitful," he says. "About a year ago I found myself doing gigs where I’d be thinking to myself that I would’ve gotten more out of staying home and practicing. I still play out two or three nights a week, but I want to feel that anyone who comes to a gig is going to see something pretty exceptional."

To that end, the Vandermark 5 — the other members are saxophonist Mars Williams, bassist Kent Kessler, drummer Tim Mulvenna, and sensational trombonist Jeb Bishop, who doubles on guitar — last fall began playing informal "workshop" gigs at the Empty Bottle every Tuesday night. They hoped not only to develop new ideas, but also to achieve musical clairvoyance. "All the bands that I love — whether it’s Ellington or the Clifford Brown-Max Roach group — part of their excitement was that they could not only improvise on an unbelievable level, but that they could turn on a dime and nail exhilarating material," says Vandermark. On Single Piece Flow (whose release the group will celebrate with a performance at the Empty Bottle on Friday), the Vandermark 5 does indeed approach that sort of instinctive grace.

Vandermark also continues to play with international musicians as they come through town — most recently intense German reedist Peter Brötzmann, French new-music bassist Joelle Leandre, and Swedish free-improv saxist Mats Gustafsson — but he says he’s learned most from playing with older American musicians like introspective free-jazz avatar Joe McPhee, former Sun Ra drummer Robert Barry, and tenor titan Fred Anderson. "I’ve had to deal firsthand with their ideas, experiences, and schools of thought," he says. Apparently, one thing Vandermark has learned from his elders is the value of restraint: the most striking thing about his recent work is the way he’s eased back from the crowded, full-throttle attack that characterized his work with the old quartet. On both Single Piece Flow and Real Time (Eighth Day Music), the recent debut from Steam — a slightly more traditional four-piece with Kessler, Mulvenna, and pianist Jim Baker — he employs gentler swing rhythms and restrained, even pretty melodies. Tunes like the mournful "Fence" and the gorgeous "The Mark Inside," which sounds like a collaboration between Charles Mingus and Jackie McLean, illustrate the reedist’s heightened sense of musical economy and his expanding range. It seems safe to expect this trend to continue in May, when the local Okka Disk label will release three albums by the DKV Trio (Vandermark’s brawny free-jazz unit with Kessler and percussionist Hamid Drake), one of which will feature Fred Anderson in an investigation of Anderson’s own rarely heard compositions.

"Someone like McPhee can build an unbelievable musical architecture from just a couple of notes," says Vandermark, "and it’s made me realize that sometimes it’s best not to play anything in certain situations."