Ken Vandermark : Raw and Refined



AAJ-e: How did Hoxha come about and does this project have a future? Why was the band named after Enver Hoxha?

KV-e: The band was put together by the bassist in the group, Torsten Mueller. I really hope that we can do more work together; the opportunity to work more with that quartet would be fantastic. Dylan van der Schyff was in touch about some possible work in Europe next spring, so we’ll see. Torsten named the group so you would need to ask him for the full reason behind the ensemble’s name.

AAJ: I caught Hoxha’s Seattle show last year and one of the things that struck me was Paul Rutherford’s extended technique, he had me sitting there with my jaw open. But this was less evident in the recording of the following night in Portland. In fact, it seems like the band was maybe going in a different direction than the night before. Could this have something to do with the recording’s technical limitations?

KV: Well, I think with that group, since all the music was improvised, the performances from night to night change pretty radically. The gig that you saw was quite a bit different in nature than the one that got released. And that’s the thing with the recordings, even when you’re working with material, composed material, pre-composed material—however you want to call it—the music changes a lot from performance to performance and I believe it should, otherwise the people involved aren’t really trying to improvise. So there are people taking risks, musical chances and whatnot, if they’re really pushing themselves. For example, if you listen to the music of the Mingus group with Eric Dolphy—the live recordings—yeah they’re playing basically the same collection of tunes, but the way they re-investigate from night to night makes everything sound, not just fresh but it’s like a new look on a similar set of material. When you’re working with a group that’s improvising from the ground up where everything is essentially spontaneous decision-making and all the structures are organized on the fly, to me the groups are going to sound quite a bit different from night to night if they’re looking for different ways to play.

In that particular group I think we had maybe four concerts, maybe five concerts on that, on that trip on the West Coast in Canada and the U.S., and that was the first time the band had ever played. I mean, I’d never played with Paul Rutherford before, I’d never played with Dylan van der Schyff before, I’d played with Torsten a couple times many years earlier, so for me it was really walking into a brand new situation each night. Part of that meant, well what can the group be about? What can we do, what do we play, how do we change? So I don’t find it very surprising that the music was so different from night to night. And for me personally, that’s kind of the goal actually, whether I’m playing compositions or improvising completely.

I can understand on the one hand if you’ve seen the group and then hear the recordings and say, “hey, wow, there’s a real difference here,” and maybe for your own interests in the music, you found the performance that you saw to be more to your liking, I’m certainly not going to argue with that [laughs], but I think that a couple of things happen; one thing that’s going on is that by seeing the group live and not to harp on this too much but, you’re also seeing the interaction live. You’re seeing, you’re hearing not things through a recording, but the way they sounded acoustically in that room. The way the sound would travel around in that room, the way we looked, the physical actions connected to the sonic actions, and all these things—that’s why I love live music. That’s why I like to play and perform so much and do so many concerts because all that stuff is so fresh. The freedom to look for something new each night is the reason why I play the music I do. So that’s one thing, I think that the live experience has such a big impact on the way the music is received. And then also, the nature of the recording that’s been released. I’m sure the most interesting thing to me would have been if you could have seen both concerts. And the response and the perception of the music by seeing both of the concerts, I’d be very curious to see what your perspective on it was then, because some of the power I think you’re suggesting on the concert you saw was connected to the live aspect of it. That’s why I wish there were more chances for all these groups to play more than one show in a town.

AAJ: Some of the subtleties, the nuances that went on that night, I suspect they just wouldn’t translate to recordings. You only have so many decibels to work with and you’re bound to lose some of the details that you’d hear in person.

KV: I agree. I’ve spent a long time listening to the music I’m working with, playing it, seeing it live, listening to it on albums, and it’s taken me years to try to appreciate the way the music gets organized by members—you know, the people who play completely free music, and start off understanding the music of Evan Parker or Derek Bailey. It took a long time to get to it to where I could hear it as I hear it now with a sense of understanding. I think that with completely improvised music, the signposts, the reference points for people who are maybe more familiar with the mainstream of jazz, the things that they’re going to connect to are not self-evident off recordings. In a live situation however, a lot of the relationships that they would see in a more conventional, let’s say jazz performance, are there too. They can see the, the visual communication, the cause and effect, the transfer of information in a way that’s very difficult to assemble from only hearing a recording. And I know for a fact that the music that’s been in an unconventional and pushing boundary lines was…it was always easier for me to get to the experience when I could see it live. It was much quicker for me to receive the information and make the conceptual shifts in my thinking necessary to get to the music, and then I can go back and listen to the recordings and get a lot more out of them. And that’s after spending a lifetime listening to this kind of music, you know.

So I think that the subtleties you’re talking about in terms of a live performance, there’s a lot to that and I think with music that people are unfamiliar with, the more times they can see the thing live, the better off they’re going to be—to realize how essential the basic characteristics of music are to music that’s freely improvised or music that’s organized by compositional techniques that are set up before the performance.

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