logo  CMJ, 06/15/98: Ken Vandermark: The New Breed by Tad Hendrickson

"No one held a gun to my head," explains saxophonist Ken Vandermark, "and told me ‘play crazy music and we’ll support you.’ I have to figure out a way to support myself, as does everyone else that I work with. It’s the biggest, most difficult challenge. That and to keep developing."

Though cash flow is still an issue, Vandermark doesn’t seem to be having any trouble developing his music. With the release of the Vandermark 5’s Single Piece Flow, which made it to #2 on the CMJ Jazz chart last spring, he’s proven himself an artist capable of making an international impact. Four weeks after its release, the V5’s Target or Flag has hit the Jazz top ten again, as has another Vandermark-related project, NRG Ensemble’s Bejazzo Gets a Facelift. Despite a core audience of primarily jazz programmers, the reedman’s weekly gigs at Chicago’s Empty Bottle are drawing progressively more fans from the Windy City’s rock community and beyond.

"I think that what’s happened is that people have become less and less interested in categorizing music as ‘this is rock, this is jazz, this is classical and I’m only interested in jazz or I’m only interested in classical music,’" he says. "I think that it’s possible to use elements of different things to create a good environment to improvise on. Sometimes it may come from folk-blues stuff. It’s pretty open-ended as far as the possibilities go."

Like his audience, Vandermark is interested in moving beyond categorization in music, comfortably integrating seemingly divergent genres into his jazz style, even moving completely outside the genre at times. Whether it’s playing completely improvised music in the DKV Trio, sitting in with the European jazz stalwarts in Mats Gustafsson’s AALY Trio, leading the Vandermark 5, being a part of the legendary NRG Ensemble, playing R&B with the Crown Royals or as a permanent guest of Jesus Lizard offshoot DK3, there is no doubt that Vandermark’s youthful enthusiasm is being put to the test on a daily basis.

In the past year, the saxophonist has attempted to slow down and to concentrate on fewer projects, but there is much to do and opportunities not to be missed. "I’m trying to do stuff with Fred Anderson and Robert Barry when I can," says Vandermark, a willing collaborator with these two elder statesmen of the Chicago jazz scene. "There’s a time line on certain things, and I want to try to take advantage of these things to see where they go while the possibility exists."

Things weren’t always so busy for Vandermark. After finishing a film studies degree in Montreal, he moved to Boston (he was raised just outside the city), but he really didn’t make a connection. "I looked at the scene and recognized what it was at that point," he explains. "I wasn’t able to play with people like Joe Morris. I was just beginning my work and these guys were way beyond what I could even imagine at the point I was there. I felt I should go somewhere else for a while." Being optimistic, he hoped Chicago might offer greater options. A couple years later, he found himself frustrated again. "I wasn’t able to find musicians that were interested in what I was doing, or vice versa. I just felt really isolated."

A convergence of two things changed all that. In 1992 Vandermark found kindred spirits in drummer Michael Zerang and bassist Kent Kessler, with whom he formed the Vandermark Quartet. "That was a really important thing," Vandermark says about that ensemble’s birth. Still thinking about leaving Chicago, Vandermark went to a seminar given by legendary saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton. On the final day students brought in tapes to play for Braxton. "I gave him this tape and I had never been so nervous," says Vandermark. "My heart was pounding and I felt like I was going to throw up. [Braxton] listened to it and was genuinely enthusiastic about it." Galvanized, Vandermark got the push he needed. "It gave me the energy to come back [to Chicago] and say screw it, I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing because I’m right," he laughs.

Through his steady gigging, Vandermark has received increased recognition in the non-jazz community, a pleasant phenomenon that led him to search out a label to fit his new breed needs. "[My audience] tends to be music fans and a lot of times they come out of a rock background. It seemed to make sense to get on a label that was more easily accessible to those kinds of listeners." Atavistic turned out to be the perfect choice. Located in Chicago, the label’s proximity to Vandermark afford the two a close working relationship. Equally important, Atavistic already has a reputation for challenging listeners with unusual talent like the Swans, Glenn Branca, Lydia Lunch, MX-80 and Christian Marclay. It also had the distribution muscle of Touch and Go behind it.

Although some jazz musicians would cringe at the idea of finding their CDs stuck in non-jazz surroundings, Vandermark couldn’t be happier. "It’s cool because that means people who wouldn’t go into the jazz section can now see the stuff," he says. Perhaps even more importantly, his records can now be found in stores that don’t normally carry jazz.

With so much momentum, Vandermark’s touring prospects have improved as well. "It’s been exciting to play night after night out of town in different parts of the country and find that people actually know what’s going on in Chicago," he says. "There’s a lot of enthusiasm and that’s super gratifying." Perhaps audiences are picking up on Vandermark’s enthusiasm. Perhaps this new crowd is looking for the next step in jazz. Whatever the audience’s motivation, Vandermark and other like-minded players are pointing jazz in new directions that are both beholden to its history, but reaching well beyond its traditional parameters.