logo  Magnet, November/December 2000: The Professional by Bill Meyer
  A free-jazz entrepreneur who keeps appointments with numerous bands, Chicago multi-reedist Ken Vandermark steers improvised music with organizational skill.

If you catch Ken Vandermark without a horn in his hand, chances are his mitt is wrapped around a cup of coffee. He couldn’t keep up his absurdly busy pace without it, and he’s in particular need of rocket fuel when we meet at a restaurant adjcent to renowned Chicago music club the Empty Bottle.

Earlier today, Vandermark recorded duets with German double-bassist Peter Kowald; yesterday, he rehearsed a collaboration with Loos, Dutchman Peter van Bergen’s ensemble. He and musician/writer John Corbett spent the weekend running the Bottle’s Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, an annual shindig that celebrates the weekly concert series they book. Vandermark squeezed in an extemporaneous clarinet summit with festival guests André Jaume and Floris Floridis on Saturday afternoon; two days prior, he played a concert with his Sound in Action Trio. And tonight? How about two sets with the Vandermark 5, which performs at the Bottle every Tuesday the ensemble’s members are in town? No wonder he once named one of his bands Caffeine.

Perhaps you’re using up fingers counting the combos and ad hoc musical encounters mentioned in the previous paragraph? Fetch your abacus. Currently, Vandermark is in 14 bands that play anywhere from once a week to once a year, though the tally might have shifted by the time you read this. The 35-year-old Chicagoan has played tenor saxophone and clarinet on more than 50 albums. He has guested on records and at concerts by such disparate artists as grooving organist Big John Patton, guitarist Charles Kim’s tango-oriented Sinister Luck Ensemble, art-rockers Gastr del Sol, cerebral German pianist Georg Gräwe, English improv percussionist Paul Lytton, and indie-rock vets Superchunk. Is Vandermark perhaps stretching himself a bit thin?

“Yeah, on a certain level I would agree that I may be overextended,” he says. “But the way that I learn is by throwing myself into all of these things, so I don’t know if I would develop any faster if I was just focused on one specific one. I have a lot of respect for [guitarist/electronics player] Kevin Drumm, because in a sense that’s what he’s doing. He’s examining a territory that’s got a lot of diversity in range, but he’s obviously not out playing like Grant green [a guitarist who was ubiquitous on Blue Note recordings in the ’60s]. On the one hand, I love playing with Kevin and doing that any time I get the chance; on the other hand, I would jump in and try to do that Grant Green gig.”

Vandermark is very conscious that his chance to learn from veteran jazz players won’t last forever, so he eats up opportunities to be taught by elders like Lytton, veteran saxophonist Fred Anderson, and pioneering German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann with the appetite of a bear that’s been roused from hibernation. “With Sound in Action Trio, I saw Robert [Barry, a 67-year-old drummer who worked with Sun Ra over three decades] play,” says Vandermark. “And it was imperative that I get a chance to play with him, to work with him, to get inside what he’s doing on the drums, to spend some time with him and hear his story. Should I see something like that and say no? I would have to be crazy to put that on the side and not do it, because how long will I be able to do that?”

Vandermark’s style integrates the last half-century’s advances in horn playing. High-energy free blowing, James Brown-esque funk rhythms, gently swinging balladry, atomized abstraction — he plays them all. Some of Vandermark’s bands focus on one style or repertoire, and he shifts between tenor sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet to suit each group’s requirements. Until last year, he cranked out greasy R&B with the Crown Royals and, before that, raucous garage/rock with the Wast eKings. Currently, he blows Albert Ayler’s sanctified marches in fellow saxophonist Mars Williams’ Witches and Devils and juxtaposes the music of cosmic pranksters Sun Ra and Funkadelic in Spaceways Incorporated.

Other Vandermark outfits cast a broader net. The always-exhilarating DKV Trio (with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Hamid Drake) ranges from quasi-Middle Eastern trance music to ferociously swinging blowouts, while Signal to Noise Unit (with Drumm and percussionist Steve Butters) maps out the ground between Jimmy Giuffre-esque chamber jazz and electric timbral exploration. Still other bands allow Vandermark to march wits and sonic vocabularies with a specific player: his duets with percussionist Lytton; with saxophonist Mats Gustafsson in the AALY Trio and FJF; and alongside drummer Barry in the Sound in Action Trio.

With so much activity, it’s no wonder Vandermark is heard on so many records; he’s the leader or key player on seven recordings issued in the past year alone. But in a way, the albums are secondary. “To me, this music is really about performing live concerts,” he says. “I see the records as documentation of what a group does.”

The rock-tinged Vandermark 5 is where he puts it all together. An intensive performance and rehearsal schedule has so honed the quintet’s edge that it can pull off any sonic or stylistic combination Vandermark chooses. Trombonist Jeb Bishop is equally adept at playing voluptuous shapes and sputtering shreds, and it’s his electric guitar that brings the rock. Double-bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna can swing, colorize, and pulverize a thick catalog of rhythms and textures. Saxophonist Dave Rempis, who replaced Williams in 1998 (Williams was too busy leading his own bands to keep up with the group’s itinerary), nimbly articulates Vandermark’s tight, tricky charts and has become a solid soloist in his own right.

Listen to the 5’s four albums in chronological order and you can hear Vandermark’s growth as a composer; he’s added space, flexibility, and flow to his rigorously constructed pieces. They gain tension from contrasting elements; on “Accident Happening”, from the 5’s latest album, Burn the Incline (Atavistic), skittering trombone, bass, and cymbals bounce off a solid wall of sustained saxophone tones. Says Bishop, who first played with Vandermark seven years ago in the Flying Luttenbachers, “The basic building blocks he’s using seem to have remained largely the same, but formally, the writing has definitely gotten more complex and ambitious. Structures are often longer and more complicated, and there’s often an interesting use of the same thematic material, transformed in various ways, in different musical moods or contexts within a piece. The pieces are very often like little -- or not-so-little -- suites that explore a variety of different places within the boundaries of one composition.”

According to Vandermark, however, it’s intuition that guides him. “There isn’t a lot of theoretical basis to it,” he says. “It just seems like this is the right direction for the material to go. With the newest material, intuitively it seems I’m making these jumps, but it’s taken me a while to make sense as to why I’m making these jumps.”

One such leap is “Distance&rdquo, Burn the Incline’s opening track. It moves through three stylistically dissimilar sections: first, an exotic, Don Cherry-like melody; then, some heavy stomping funk; and finally, a pile-driving blowout that would satiate a hungry Jesus Lizard fan. Each part affects how the others are perceived, much in the same way sequential scenes in a movie accumulate a collective meaning that each wouldn’t have if viewed separately. (Not coincidentally, Vandermark’s college degree is in film.)

To carry the celluloid analogy further, Vandermark works like directors John Cassavetes and Mike Leigh: he assembles complimentary ensembles of strong personalities and gives them the basic setup, then has them take it to another level by improvising much of the dialogue. Vandermark also follows the example of master bandleaders Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington, tailoring his compositions to his musicians’ strengths. Says Bishop, “I think much, if not most, of the writing he does is done with particular players in mind.”

All of these practices came together last winter when Vandermark convened the Territory Band. Its roster includes all of the Vandermark 5, two more Chicagoans (cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and pianist Jim Baker), and two European improvisers (percussionist Lytton and trumpeter Axel Dörner). “I didn’t really think of the Territory Band as being the 5 plus other members,” Vandermark politely counters when I describe the band that way. “The thing that the project drove home to me was how much everything was about the chemistry of players. There was a lot of cross-pollination of ideas. It wasn’t like a pickup group of guys I normally work with and then just throw in a couple people; it was like, all of a sudden, everybody was different because of who was in that group. You have to have a band with a chemistry to really get further into the music than just executing the material — that’s not interesting to me.”

The Territory Band’s music thrives on contrasts: blasting high energy and textured micro-events, seething abstraction and swinging big-band riffs, densely packed sounds and long stretches of silence. The ensemble’s album is due out on the OkkaDisk label next year.

The Territory and is just one project whose realization is a direct result of the $265,000 fellowship granted to Vandermark last year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The so-called “genius grant” didn’t come without controversy, though. Previously, it’s been awarded to highly influential, decades-established figures like Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, and Anthony Braxton. Vandermark caught flak from some jazz aficionados and journalists who deemed him unproven and unworthy. But by giving Vandermark the money, the Foundation accomplished two things: it defied the neo-conservative revisionists who try to dismiss free music as a dead-end relic from the ’60s, and it seeded the music’s ongoing growth around the world. Vandermark isn’t one to keep his fortune to himself. “I can’t imagine anything better to do with the money than put it back into the music,” he says.

Vandermark has invested the funds in recording sessions (with the Territory Band and guitarist Joe Morris) and tours (by the AALY Trio and Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet). Brötzmann’s massive ensemble is a virtual who’s-who of free-jazz talent. Although birthed and based in Chicago, it has, at times, included Swedish saxophonist Gustafsson, Japanese electronic trumpeter Toshinori Kondo, and New Yorkers William Parker (bass), Roy Campbell (brass), and Joe McPhee (brass and reeds). Until this year, logistical and financial pressures have limited the band to sporadic festival performances and two records for OkkaDisk. In June, the Vandermark underwrote an 11-gig tour that ended with another recording session. He didn’t attach strings to the money, however, or let it go to his head.

“Although [Vandermark] was handing out a large porition of this year’s installment, using his booking agent and acting as tour manager, he never set himself up as anything other than one guy in the band,” marvels fellow Tentet member Lonberg-Holm. “He has stayed so cool and decent in the wake of what would screw up a lot of us big time. As much as I could use the bred, I couldn’t deal with the shit some folks have given him. How would you like to see a figure representing the next five years of your income written by your name every third day? I would go fucking nuts.”

Since receiving the grant, Vandermark has remained a gracious collaborator. Says guitarist Charles Kim (ex-Pinetop Seven, Boxhead Ensemble), who recently invited Vandermark to play on an upcoming record by his Sinister Luck Ensemble, “It’s amazing how generous Ken is with his time, especially for a project like mine, which isn’t totally a free-improv thing. He made a point of clearing time for me, even when he was planning that monstrous Tentet tour.”

Vandermark goes out of his way to play on an egalitarian level with relatively unknown up-and-comers as well as big names and, in the process, becomes part of the living chain that passes jazz knowledge from generation to generation. Of course, the information exchange goes both ways. “Anyone I’m playing with, I’m learning from,” says Vandermark. “That’s been my perspective all along.”

Vandermark’s next, as-yet-unnamed OkkaDisk release pairs him and Bishop with the young, ferociously full-steam Norwegian rhythm section of Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love. He’s also made the rounds in Chicago with two more bass-and-drum teams (Liz Payne and Adam Vida, and Jason Roebke and Chad Taylor).

“All of a sudden, I’m in the middle now,” says Vandermark. “And it’s the first time where I’m the one with the most experience. It’s a new position to be in, and it’s weird, because I really feel like I’m just scratching the surface.”