logo  Wire, 07/98 by Jon Morgan

"We were talking about Sun Ra earlier," remarks Ken Vandermark, "and saying that part of his ability to translate his music to people who don’t normally listen to that kind of stuff was his willingness to play. You know, ‘Give me a room and I’ll be there.’ I believe very strongly that the music that are working on here, the good stuff will also stand up in any kind of situation.

"I mean, the last couple of years, I’ve learned so much," he continues, "and there is no way I could have done it without performing on the regular basis that I have been."

If jazz is the teacher, Ken Vandermark majors in the difficult but rewarding field of new school improvisation. Never passing up the challenge to test or tax his playing skills on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, he has schooled himself in the clubs and rehearsal spaces of Chicago. After years of intense cramming, he has not only graduated with honours, he’s now teaching jazz a few tricks of his own. Currently, his music ranges across the fierce improvisations of DKV Trio (with bassist Kent Kessler and percussionist Hamid Drake), the raucous avant jazz/hard rock hybrids of The NRG Ensemble and Vandermark 5, and the post-Dolphy terrain covered by his quartet Steam. He is also more than capable of holding his own in the company of such icons of jazz and free music as Joe McPhee and Peter Brötzmann.

With his combination of youthful fire and good looks, Vandermark is a charismatic spearhead for a new kind of improv scene that is as likely to have grown up with Sonic Youth and the SST label as Evan Parker or Derek Bailey. Indeed, he takes every opportunity to push the music to new audiences. Poised between punk and free music, The NRG Ensemble and Vandermark 5 regularly play rock clubs without prompting a rush for the exits.

In person as in his music, Vandermark is reserved and deferential one moment, animated and intense the next. Raised in Massachusetts, he moved from Boston to Chicago in 1989, since when he has become a fixture in the city’s music community.

"I think the situation in Chicago’s exceptional, based on all the musicians I’ve met and all the people I’ve talked to," he muses. "I’m not aware of any place in the world where you’re able to play twice a week doing really creative stuff that’s not catering to a club’s economic expectations. I’m doing the music that I want to be doing, playing to people who are receptive to it, and I know it’s not like that in New York."

Slouching back in the couch of his apartment’s sunny front room, Vandermark reflects on Chicago’s long musical narrative. Since the end of World War Two, its fertile soil has yielded tough tenor players like Johnny Griffin and Gene Ammons; the Chess Records label has kept the blues pumping through the city’s veins; further, it was the birthplace of Sun Ra’s Arkestra and the AACM. Thanks to the hard work of such artists and organisations, the city has become one of America’s rare improvisational hotbeds, capable of sustaining a semi-stable pool of venues and musicians, both local and international. German pianist Georg Gräwe was so impressed with the city’s work ethic that he went to live there for half of 1997. While less confident musicians might be intimidated by the intensity of the Chicago scene, Vandermark embraces it as an opportunity for growth for himself and audiences alike.

"We work on these things," he explains. "We have our own ideas that we think are interesting, and suddenly you have to contend with a group like [Swedish improvisational trio] Gush. Last year they played one of the most amazing improvised music sets I’ve ever seen, absolutely mindblowing. As a musician it’s pretty scary to see that, because the audience is sitting there saying, ‘oh, so this is what the good stuff sounds like.’ And an audience that’s been coming out to see this stuff regularly, they’re getting an education. So now they know if you’re sucking — last night they saw Brötzmann tear the roof off, and now they are listening to you and going, ‘What do you have to show me?’"

Visibly excited, Vandermark adds, "When the musicians know the possibilities, and they know the audience knows, and everybody’s expectations are really high, it pushes the music in a beautiful way."

Before arriving in Chicago and going at music full-time, Vandermark studied film and communications at McGill University in Montreal. He moved back to Boston in 1986 and began to focus all of his energy into music. The following year, he formed the trio Lombard Street with Debris drummer Curt Newton and guitarist Peter Warren. All That Falls, their self-produced cassette from 1989, is evidence that the raw foundation for Vandermark’s compositional style, governed by his distinctive rough and tumble aesthetic, was already in place by the time he arrived in Chicago at the end of the same year. But regular work eluded him until 1992. "It took a couple of years of very extreme frustration," he recalls, "but things have kind of picked up since then."

Vandermark’s first important break in Chicago came, ironically, when he substituted for fellow reed players Mars Williams in Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble. Then, after Russell died in 1992, he was asked to sit in with the group at a memorial concert. The synergy within the group was so powerful that Vandermark became a regular member.

Since then, his unquenchable urge to play as much as possible has led to his participation in some two dozen recordings. However, the endlessly changing settings for his music began to wear on Vandermark’s patience and he was forced to re-evaluate his strategy.

"This year I’ve tried to focus a little harder on specific projects, because last year it just got too much," he smiles wearily. "I was in about ten groups and from an organisational standpoint it was a nightmare, because I’m the guy who mostly does the phone calls and gets the gigs and that stuff. I felt I spread out too much — but there are way too many things that I like to do."

Which of his groups is his favourite?

"Ideally the Vandermark 5 is the closest I’ve come to having a group that can do all the kinds of things I like to do — at least musically. But it’s very difficult because personalities and aptitudes and interests are all things that go into having a band. Some bands are better at doing certain kinds of things, and so if you want to do a wide variety of music, it’s hard to come up with a band that can do them all. Anyway, a lot of pleasure comes out of working with different people in different contexts.

"One thing that people notice is that I play with [bassist] Kent Kessler in almost everything that I’ve done. Then there’s other musicians like Tim Mulvenna [Steam’s percussionist]. I play with him quite frequently in different groups, but one thing that happens — and a lot of people don’t seem to notice this — if you take, let’s say, a pool of ten musicians, and you mix them in different combinations, the music that the resulting groups make is dramatically different, depending on the chemistry that happens."

Though Chicago is presently America’s most welcoming city for musical innovation, the future of the music is nevertheless as uncertain here as elsewhere. Lunar Cabaret, the venue where Vandermark secured a weekly spot for over two years, has just ditched music from its programming. On the other hand, the Bop Shop, once a notoriously tough room for improvisors, has recently adopted a more adventurous booking policy, highlighted by the weekly spot they allow for the octet Vandermark co-leads with Gräwe. Recalling what the Bop Shop used to be like, Vandermark shudders. "Invariably someone would start a pool game and all the pool balls would fall down in the middle of some quiet passage and destroy any ability to sustain a mood."

"Every year and a half I have to rethink where I’m going to work," he laments, "and that has nothing to do with music. All those things are business things, trying to figure out how to do it and not lose your mind — on top of that, you’re trying to compose and practise, you’re trying to work on skills and ideas, rehearse, even though you don’t even know where you’re going to be playing."

At least the energy level of Vandermark’s projects gains them access to the city’s rock clubs, where they play to audiences who have been primed by such radio stations as Northwestern University’s WNUR with the improvisations of Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson and their like. Does Vandermark see himself as a bridge between more adventurous rock music and improv?

"Not just the improvising scene, but music in general is in an incredibly strange place right now," he says by way of reply. "I think out of sheer boredom musically curious people are turning to other kinds of stuff for inspiration." About his own position in the scheme of things, he adds, "I think certain projects I do have a lot more visceral energy on the surface. Maybe there’s an electric guitar, and maybe it’s really driving, and there’s regular rhythms that people can really latch onto. I don’t sit back and say, ‘Do you know what we need? We need a hook here.’"

At a push, Vandermark admits there’s more to it than that. "The most successful thing I’m doing now on a lot of levels is the trio with Kent and Hamid Drake. Yet there are no tunes or electric guitar, and many times it gets extremely abstract. If someone will come out and see The Vandermark 5 and then catch the trio with Hamid, they’ll come check out our other things. There seems to be this thought that they won’t get it, but you have to start somewhere."

Perversely, his versatility and hard work more often attract negative criticism than praise. Some critics feel he is over-documented, or that his industrious nature somehow reflects a player with more style than substance. "I have an interest in trying to perform regularly, yet I get shit for that all the time. Or working with many other people. I get shit for that too," Vandermark sighs, somewhat exasperated. "I look at people like Coleman Hawkins. Who did he play with? If you look at his recordings he’s hopping from project to project, featuring different people in different contexts, and tell me that didn’t have an impact on his playing. Tell me the be-boppers didn’t have an impact on his playing. He was one of the first people to play with [Dizzy] Gillespie and [Howard] McGhee and those guys. His ears were so open, and it had a huge impact on his playing. The guy went from playing with Louis Armstrong to playing with Thelonious Monk. Who do we have like that? We’re talking huge stylistic jumps."

Into our third pot of coffee, Vandermark is now on a roll. "And that stuff he did with [Sonny] Rollins," he rolls his eyes, "that late stuff with Rollins is so out, it’s amazing the shit that he did. And that’s one example. I aspire to be like that. It comes down to performing and working with different people, experimenting and taking chances. The problem is, if you get a gig once a month at best, how many different things are you going to get to attempt?

"I think that it is negative when people perceive this as competition over a limited amount of work, as opposed to various people being involved in the same field, trying to develop the field, and take it some place. If nothing else, they can add their own individual personality to the possibilities. That’s what is amazing about a guy like Anthony Braxton. He is so unbelievably open to stuff."

Defiantly, he continues: "So these are my methods. I like to work with different people. I think there’s ample evidence that it is a legitimate way to approach things. If you want to perform less, fine. I’m not getting on a soapbox and saying your methods are wrong. It gets discouraging and frustrating when people take me to task about it, claiming that my motivations are non-musical, that I want to be famous, or that I want to be in with the hip crowd, or that I don’t know what I’m doing. If you don’t like the music I’m doing, that is valid, but don’t criticise my motivations if you don’t know what they are.

"I am an incredibly privileged person right now," he reflects, "and I’m aware of it. What I’m doing now is what I’ve wanted to do for years. I know how lucky I am, and it’s kind of unfortunate that people criticise this thing as though I am on this route to fucking selling platinum records! It’s absurd."