logo  Chicago Sun-Times, 5/11/97: Making his mark: Bands keep musician sharp
  by Lloyd Sachs

Next to each of the song titles on his albums, reed player Ken Vandermark issues a dedication — mostly to a musical hero such as Eric Dolphy, Coleman Hawkins and Thelonious Monk, but also the occasional pop culture interloper. “Careen,” the lead cut on the Vandermark Five’s terrific new CD, “Single Piece Flow,” is dedicated to Hong Kong movie superstar Jackie Chan.

A slender, crew-cutted, reserved fellow, Vandermark is not the type to make his presence felt by leaping and screaming — at least in a nonmusical way. But since settling in Chicago in 1989, the 32-year-old Boston-area native has kicked life into the local avant-garde jazz scene like no one since the dawn of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians 30 years ago.

Led by a tireless muse, Vandermark concentrically circles the city with a multitude of bands, at clubs including the Empty Bottle, Lunar Cabaret and Velvet Lounge and on small labels including OkkaDisk, Atavistic, Eighth Day Music and Quinnah.

It’s a rare week that goes by without two or three performances by the saxist and clarinetist — or, it sometimes seems, two or three new CDs. Vandermark makes his mark (take a breath) with the Vandermark Five, NRG Ensemble, Steam, the DKV Trio, Witches and Devils and Cinghiale. He also is featured in ongoing groups with tenor great Fred Anderson, former Sun Ra drummer Robert Barry, Swedish saxist Mats Gustafsson and reclusive East Coast saxist/trumpeter Joe McPhee.

If that weren’t enough, he boosts the music as a programmer. Along with critic/musician/deejay John Corbett, he launched the acclaimed Wednesday jazz series at the Empty Bottle — which this week expands to an international four-day Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music.

In juggling groups, Vandermark isn’t playing any can-I-top-this games. He shifts settings to scratch creative itches, exploiting the opportunity to perform on a regular basis — something that simply isn’t available in other American cities for artists of his experimental bent.

“Ken is constantly looking to find new sides of his talent,” said saxophonist Mars Williams, his frequent co-leader (and leader of the popular acid jazz band Liquid Soul). “There is no one who is more open-minded to different styles of music. His ability to fit into them and fuse them together is amazing.”

“I have a band mentality,” said Vandermark. “All of my favorite musicians have played in great bands. To me, the possibilities in them are endless. You can take the same players, put them in different combinations and they’ll play completely differently.”

He proves that point with “Single Piece Flow,” the Vandermark Five’s debut CD, and Steam’s inaugural disc, “Real Time.” The former band, featuring Williams, trombonist/guitarist Jeb Bishop, bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna, thrives on balancing composition and improvisation. It favors open, unfolding structures, jolting rhythms and bold saxophone harmonies.

Steam, in which Vandermark, Kessler and Mulvenna are joined by pianist Jim Baker, strives to embrace time-honored “head” arrangements (theme, improvisations, theme) while freeing itself of their constraints. With his running chords and antic clusters, Baker sometimes creates the illusion of simultaneously working inside and outside of the rhythm section.

As different as the Vandermark Five and Steam are, they are unified by Vandermark’s full-throated, hard-edged playing — and his devotion to both the spirit of adventure and the group ideal. As strong a soloist as he is, he isn’t one to invite his bandmates to eat any dust. He thrives on interaction, and not just with frontline partners like Williams, with whom he has developed a kind of musical twinship.

“The way soloists and drummers interact is overlooked a lot of the time, but it’s so crucial,” he said. “People write about tonal color and harmony and things like that all the time, but no one writes about rhythm. That’s always been my focus. If things are happening rhythmically, you can get away with a lot of stuff.”

Vandermark was first exposed to modern jazz as a teen by his father, a musicologist, who during the late ’70s turned him on to adventurers such as saxist Archie Shepp. But nothing turned Ken’s head until 1982, when he heard Joe McPhee’s solo saxophone album “Tenor” (a long out-of-print item issued in 1976 on the Swiss hat HUT label).

One song in particular, the haunting, darkly floating, Lester Young-influence ballad, “Good-Bye Tom B,” had a resounding impact. “I heard and literally said that’s what I want to do,” said Vandermark. “It was so utterly beautiful and melodic, with these amazing polyphonics and multiphonics. It was like an epiphany.”

(Flash forward to 1994, when McPhee, a cult favorite, heard the now-defunct Vandermark Quartet perform “Good-Bye Tom B” at a festival in Vancouver, British Columbia. “He was so excited that someone knew one of his songs well enough to play it,” said Vandermark, who played with him for the first time last year at the Empty Bottle — “a really wild experience” that led to their new CD, “A Meeting in Chicago,” and their reteaming at the Bottle on Friday.)

After embarking on the righteous path of free jazz, Vandermark got a solid working education on Boston’s alternative scene, studiously avoiding the city’s famous Berklee College of Music and its confining teachings: “Never in a million years would anyone there consider playing a note that is ‘wrong.’”

He lived for a time in Montreal before coming to Chicago to dip into its talent pool and continue his studies with veterans including the late Hal Russell (whom he replaced in the NRG Ensemble) and Anderson — whom, he admitted, “kicked my ass” when they first hooked horns.

No one has a more voracious musical appetite. On a recent week, Vandermark was listening to piano pieces by John Cage, Miles Davis’ fusion-charged “Agharta,” traditional Turkish clarinet music, the neglected bop of ’50s bassist Curtis Counce and a compilation by tenor immortal Coleman Hawkins — Vandermark’s favorite player, not only for his musical genius but also for his openness to and embrace of changing styles through the years.

The rock-driven Vandermark Quartet’s 1993 CD, “Big Head Eddie,” boasted savvy, swaggering salutes to George Clinton and Captain Beefheart. More recently, Vandermark has played soul and R&B instrumentals with the Crown Royals, alternative rock with the Denison-Kimball Trio (including members of the Jesus Lizard) and garage music with the Waste Kings.

Vandermark’s broad interests lift him above the myopia of avant-gardists who sometimes seem afraid of relating to the audience. Some of his bands, such as the free-wailing Caffeine, are not for casual consumption. But most of the time, in melodic or rhythmic terms, he accessible to “average” listeners. His goal is to inspire them to find windows of understanding to the music.

“When I first heard Cecil Taylor, I didn’t know what to make of him,” he said, referring to the legendary free jazz pianist. “It was difficult music. But I was fascinated by the amount of energy he put out. I’d play for five or 10 minutes and exhaust all the possibilities. How was this guy who was 60 able to play nonstop for 70 minutes, with more intensity than me? It didn’t make sense.

“It took me years of listening, but I finally caught the melodic structural element in his playing. And suddenly it was, oh, I see. All this stuff caught up to me. It’s like a painting. You don’t just get it on first viewing. But if you spend time with it and open yourself up to what is being expressed, the rewards are huge.”

For all the musical freedom that exists in Chicago, an unspoken dividing line long has separated the city’s white and black avant-gardists. The separatism flared up at a 1995 Hothouse event, where a series of highly anticipated collaborations between notable white American and European musicians and members of the AACM fell through at the last minute.

Thanks to efforts by standout white players including Vandermark, Baker, Kessler and percussionist Michael Zerang and standout black musicians including Anderson, Drake, guitarist Jeff Parker and AACM bassist Harrison Bankhead, that wall is slowly coming down.

If Vandermark continues to pile up album releases — the DKV Trio, featuring Drake and Kessler, is issuing three separate discs this month — the walls his CD shelves are attached to may come down as well. But he is determined to document these ensembles the way many notable experimental bands of the past weren’t.

While it would be hard for Vandermark to look the other way if a big label came calling, he isn’t geared toward scoring any such deals. “You end up having to make compromises, and even small ones aren’t worth it,” he said. “This way, I get to control what I’m doing and make the music I want to make. To be able to do that is more than I could ever have hoped for.”

Sampling Vandermark’s Sounds

With as many bands as he leads or contributes to, Ken Vandermark should probably publish some kind of directory. In fact, he and his frequent reed-playing partners Mars Williams have launched a Web site (www.portaudio.com/cic) charting their activities. For those without access, here’s a breakdown of 10 working ensembles involving him and what kind of sounds they make.

Vandermark Five: A sequel to the defunct Vandermark Quartet as the leader’s primary vehicle, it teams him with Williams and trombonist/guitarist Jeb Bishop on ripping, open-structured originals. Heard at the Empty Bottle most Tuesdays.

NRG Ensemble: The incomparable free/fusion band founded by the late Hal Russell, whom Vandermark replaced, and featuring Williams.

Steam: The closest to a mainstream Vandermark band, featuring pianist Jim Baker.

Witches and Devils: A sextet with Vandermark and Williams devoted to the music of ’60s free jazz sax legend Albert Ayler.

Cinghiale: A freewheeling duo with Williams that’s set to play the Knitting Factory’s annual mega-fest this summer.

DKV Trio: Vigorous spatial experiments featuring percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist Kent Kessler (an NRG mate whose deep, lyrical sound anchors most of Vandermark’s bands).

Robert Barry/Kyle Hernandez/Ken Vandermark: Boasting former Sun Ra drummer Barry and bassist Hernandez, the threesome features compositions by Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk.

Caffeine: Improvisatory free jazz.

Crown Royals: Soul and R&B instrumentals.

Denison-Kimball Trio: Jazz-influenced alternative rock featuring members of the Jesus Lizard.