Interview with Ken Vandermark, Andrew Morgan and David Ryan

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DR: Any other questions?

Audience member: You mentioned the influence visual art, and I wondered what that might be?

KV: In my efforts to deal with how to write music and finding different structural perspectives, I guess it refers to the painting that came out of the United States in the 40s and 50s, that is generally referred to as Abstract Expressionism; that has had a lot of impact on me. In particular, the way they dealt with the frame, and the edges of the picture. It’s not a direct correlation, but Cage’s loosening of the frame, musically in his pieces is a similar situation; you get the feeling they can begin and end anywhere. Or the way the visual aspect of those things were realised in Pollock’s all-over painting…or Rothko’s and Feldman’s hovering and floating, these are both classic correlatives in many ways. But in relationship to jazz, and the struggle to realise form, another example that’s important to me is Willem de Kooning and his first Woman painting, which is quite controversial. He worked on that painting for two years, and he was about my age. He’d previously had some success, but that’s a lot of work, and it raises the stakes. On one level being a musician is a privilege and it’s a privilege to be here tonight, and with that privilege comes a responsibility, and knowing about that intense risk and commitment of de Kooning helps to raise those stakes. People I know and people I’ve met are living examples of this thing that de Kooning did. The realisation like…well, how serious do I want to be about this? It’s been a very important example from the visual arts…

DR: There is a photographic record of de Kooning’s changes, his pushing the image, and the transformations that the first Woman painting underwent…

KV: Yes, and this is another important issue for jazz and improvised music: you are hearing the process. And during that two year period, the photographic record documents de Kooning wrestling with the process: representation and abstraction, with the question, what do I do with this? With improvisation it is never the same, and we don’t have the constancy of image. And everybody present in the audience, is witnessing that process in sound and this aspect of this art-form is different form any other art-forms, even art-forms that have improvisatory element within them. That’s what makes it so powerful and why I don’t want to be doing anything else…To me when it works at the highest level, the audiences and the musicians are at the same place, they don’t know what is going to happen next but they trust that something good will. And when the music raises itself to a certain point – Thelonius Monk called it ‘lifting the bandstand’ – it goes beyond the sum of its parts and everybody in the room at that time is having an experience that will never happen again. And they all know it and that’s it! And the ephemerality of it makes it very, very difficult to commodify…it’s one of the struggles of this music to make clear that this is an art-form like anything else. And just because you can’t catch it again – or if you listen to a record, it’s simply like a photograph of one time, it’s not the time – doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. It’s the essence.

Audience Member: With regard to the challenge to do something different, something that’s not been done before: does this get harder? And are there particular areas that are more fertile for you?

KV: It’s impossible. I mean it’s impossible to do something absolutely new every night. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a goal. So it’s like you are trying to do something you can’t really realise absolutely. So for me the way to get more often in a situation where I’m pushed, is to play with people who are better than me. That’s always fertile – at least for me, I don’t know about the other people (laughs). But all musicians have different capacities and skills, you know. In the second half of this concert, the musicians, well, they are, on a technical level, the kind of skills they have, beyond what I could do; but in the same way maybe I’m doing things that they can’t do. But working with them opens up things, and situations like that are fertile. Also working with quite different parallel multiple projects, rather than have one thing I do; for example I began this tour with a group of piano and bass, maybe relating to Jimmy Guiffre’s music in some way, then I worked with three Dutch musicians, I’m here now, and then I do some music with Peter Brötzmann. So all that is in one month; and even though it’s sequential, in the big picture it’s parallel. And I work this way because everything reflects on itself; what I learn from this situation I take to the next and so on. Whether I mean to or not it is part of my experience. For me it’s great because I’m always in situations, therefore, where I’m forced to do things I can’t, theoretically, do. And that struggle helps find things…

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