Ken Vandermark, others add flavors of Europe to Chicago Jazz Festival


The Chicago Jazz Festival is one of the most inclusive in the world. There has always been a staunch support for progressive improvised music by the programming committee. Traditionally that support has been for members of the distinguished Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, but this year non-AACM standard bearer, Ken Vandermark is the festival’s honoree as Artist in Residence.

Less critically celebrated but also important to the city, (Hispanics accounting for approximately a third of the city’s population), is Latin Jazz, represented by the superb Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble, the Tito Carillo Sextet and the Madrid based Jerry Gonzalez y El Commando De La Clave.

The festival has also been respectful to the elders in the music, here represented by indefatigable 87-year-old drummer Roy Haynes and the fabulous Frank D’Rone, a mere pup at 80. Comparative up-and-comers such as saxist Caroline Davis and singers Sarah Marie Young and Milton Suggs will debut this year, and prodigal sons Steve Coleman and Jeff Newell return to old stomping grounds, having left the city years ago.

Most salient perhaps is the especially high count of Europeans, including a large contingent of Danes in Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra, plus Vandermark’s diverse guests.

The multi woodwind musician/composer/bandleader/improviser Vandermark isn’t interested in tourism, though he travels far and wide. He’s back to Japan in September, was in Addis Ababa not too long ago and touring Europe in July with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya and The Ex. A week or so prior to his diverse obligations at his hometown jazz festival in Chicago, he was in Mulhouse in Eastern France performing with iTi and Fire Room, then in Austria with Side A at the Saalfelden Festival. For a slice of the schlep factor in Vandermark’s constant touring, check Daniel Krauss’ 2007 documentary “Musician,” which shadows him and many flight cases full of saxophones.

Nevertheless in email exchanges he signs off buoyantly from his current location with, “my best from Vienna” or Italy, or wherever it might be. It’s an endearing trait. And at each destination, he aspires to achieve a more lasting relationship, a deeper understanding, of those he encounters.

“One of the great things about this music is going to different parts of the world, meeting new people, having cultural exchange. I mean there’s nothing worse than being a tourist. Fortunately I never have to be a tourist. I go to a country and bring something there,” says Vandermark, who road-steered multi-national bands the Euro/American Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, the electro-acoustical Territory Band (both subsidized with funds from Vandermark’s 1999 MacArthur Award), and now his ambitious Resonance Ensemble, an eleven piece uniting Poles, Scandinavians, oneUkrainian, a New Yorker and four Chicagoans.

“The way we get treated for sharing something is extraordinary and allows you — I don’t know if access is the right word — but it gets you to see parts of the world in a light that you never would as an American tourist,” stresses Vandermark, “and that’s an amazing gift.”

It’s a particular privilege of improvised or experimental music with open structure and sensibility, that associations can be made faster, with immediate intensity — ideally with a completely egalitarian outlook. For all his prolific output of recordings and assembled bands and now the honor bestowed of artist-in-residence at the Chicago Jazz Festival, Vandermark is the most unassuming geezer you could meet. Quietly spoken, saving flames for the bandstand. As interested in the artistic pursuit of others as his own, bookshelves in his spacious house on Chicago’s Northside are as full of monographs on artists like Franz Kline, Donald Judd and DeKooning as they are of CDs. A large black Brotzmann painting dominates the living room and another by the father of one of his closest collaborators, Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, hangs above the stairs. “Artist” has traction with Vandermark, but not in a high-falutin’ manner; the term is freighted with the responsibility to fight for legitimacy as a seeker in a society frequently provincial and myopic.

The “Marco Polo of Improv,” he keeps pushing east to find new attitudes to his central area of interest — sound generation — which reflects further, perhaps, into the psyche of local populations.

The Jazz Festival granted Vandermark unusual cart blanche to invite whoever he needed to make the music he wants. At the 2003 edition of the festival he presented the cream of the Chicago’s young creative music talent in the Crisis Ensemble and remains connected with ex-members of his longrunning Vandermark 5, including drummer Tim Daisy and saxophonist Dave Rempis. Given this opportunity however, visa hustles notwithstanding, he has imported favorite out-of-towners.

Poughkeepsie-based multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee is one of Vandermark’s formative domestic influences, but collaborators from further afield include Swedish trumpeter Magnus Broo from Stockholm, clarinetist Waclaw Zimpel from Warsaw and his compatriot from Gdansk, powerhouse saxophonist Mikolaj Trzaska, not to forget Oslo’s Nilssen-Love.

Here is what they have to say about Vandermark and their own cultural exchange:

Joe McPhee: “I first learned about Ken Vandermark back in 1992/93 from an interview in Option Magazine; he mentioned how his father suggested if he intended to play tenor saxophone, he should listen to a solo recording of mine called ‘Tenor.’ I was surprised to read such a thing in a US publication and honored the recording was so highly regarded…..In 1996 I received an invitation from Ken to join him…for a performance at the Empty Bottle. The first time I got to play in Chicago. On the afternoon of that gig we made a recording for the Okka Disc ‘A Meeting in Chicago,’ a rare, now collector’s item….Ken kicked open the door for me with his invitation, I have been to Chicago many times and participated in Ken’s ‘Po Music Project,’ based on his arrangements of my compositions. Finally I began to receiver wider recognition in this country. I’m excited to participate in small group performances at Elastic on August 30th and on August 31st to join Ken for duets during the Chicago Jazz Festival, another first for me.”

Magnus Broo: “I first heard Ken on Swedish TV, playing with Aaly trio ten years ago. I was knocked out by his playing. Then I met him in Norway. We started to play together in bands like Atomic/School Days, Four Corners, Resonance Ensemble and on Atomic/Vandermark 5 tours. Last year we recorded with a new band called Platform 1, which we will tour Europe with in October.

Ken is very dedicated to his music and has a clear idea while at the same time giving the musicians space to express themselves. His ability to focus and get his ideas across is really obvious on his solo concerts.

I live in Stockholm and we have a pretty nice support system for the musicians with grants and travel support if you are lucky when you apply, but as a working freelance musician you have to travel to play enough. Touring is a must. I believe musicians in the US/Chicago have to tour also and not stay at one place. I understand musicians in the US don’t have so much government support…. European musicians need visas to play in the US. American musicians do not need visas to play in Europe. Why it is like this is beyond me. Getting visas takes a few months and costs money.”

Waclaw Zimpel: Polish cities are much smaller than Chicago. Even Warsaw, which, is a big European city is not comparable to the size of Chicago. Though there are less musicians in Poland, there was always a tradition of improvised music, embodied by such players as Krzysztof Komeda, Tomasz Stanko, Zbigniew Seifert back in the ’60s and ’70s. But the ’80s and ’90s were mainly involved with mainstream music. Concerts of progressive musicians were incidental, mainstream jazz was in charge. This situation changed rapidly in the last 15 years. A few promoters fell in love with free music and bring great musicians from all over the world to Poland, including Marek Winiarsko of Not Two Records, Wawrzyniec Makinia and Tomasz Konwent of the MultiKulti label, Ola Trzaska of Kilogram Records and Wojtek Juszczak, organizer of the Made in Chicago Festival. What followed was cooperation with Polish musicians. Ken’s “Resonance” tentet was a point of departure for so many different smaller groups. There are more and more people [in Warsaw] who are taking music very seriously and dig into many traditions looking for their own vocabulary…including folkloristic movements. Maintaining old polish, UUkrainian or Jewish traditions has become significant. Improvised music in Poland is growing and has a bigger young audience that is very promising.

Working with Ken Vandermark gives me the feeling of being pulled by a strong and fast horse. If you run you are safe, you keep contact with the ground, you keep balance; as soon as you stop, you fall down. But it is so inspiring to run with him!”

Mikolaj Trzaska: “I live in a beautiful City by the Baltic sea, Gdansk. I was born into the cultural captivity of 1966 but striking workers in the 80s rebelled against the repressive regime in Poland and now I live and play by traveling all over the world, as a Free Man. I wont say that the rebellion was a complete success, but my learning to play saxophone started on the wave of changes and my attitude became about breaking the rules.

The difference between Chicago and Poland is huge since our jazz history is much shorter. We, as part of the big communist camp of countries, were only allowed to play jazz after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953. The scene in the 60s was very active with inspiration from Americans like Monk, Coltrane and Miles Davis. In my opinion there was still something very magic and unique — a kind of color in sound — that defined Polish jazz. During this brief period musicians were brave and open before the more commercial side came in came in. When I decided to play in the 90s Polish jazz was only suitable for dinner parties but my desire was to blow very hard with the heart. Tradition is deafened in Poland, I did not grow up with Chicago blues, my mother singing me polish and Jewish melodies.

“I think since Ken Vandermark began visiting Poland in the 2000s, his presence legalized improvised jazz in our country. It dared musicians to play braver. Before that, it was a kind of frills.

“In Chicago every day you can hear something good- Elastic, Hideout, not so long ago, the Velvet Lounge. So many great musicians who appear often in Europe but are also hidden to the larger European audience. I was shocked how many great musicians live and work there and impressed when I encounter their personal modesty. In east Europe the artist has a kind of social status. Improvised music forces you to be part of a whole team. With older generation musicians in Poland, bandleader is Master and Commander. When Ken leads, he refers to musicians with respect – that is the difference.

It is sad for me however when I see only few people going to live concerts in Chicago, sometimes 10-12 people in a room, all close friends of the musicians. It is explained by much fewer musicians per square meter in Warsaw, but I also think Polish audiences really have an intensive reaction to the music. So the best idea is, bring more Chicago musicians to my country, which is what is beginning to happen now.”

Paal Nilssen-Love: “There are similarities between Oslo and Chicago. The history of The Empty Bottle and the Oslo club Bla are quite similar. Both presenting the core of the scene of musicians who push the boundaries of what’s known. Taking the temperature of what´s going on, including musicians and audience in a way where all are respected as one. Even the staff are similar, enjoying the music as much as the audience, even giving critique to the musicians! Incredible. Things have changed in both cities, people and venues moving in and out, music and art in a transition. Once I’d play two or three times a month at Bla … same goes for Ken. Now that time is gone, it´s good to see new faces. But then again, both Ken and I wish to see more commitment, risk and sacrifice for the sake of the music and the scenes. We’ve both learnt that none of us can expect the same from others that we expect from ourselves. Music isn’t something you just walk up on stage and do, it’s a lifestyle.

“… When fifty to a hundred listeners are in the same room, listening to a band that’s full on, it’s a collective experience, the band feeds off the audience and vice versa. I find this all over: Mexico, Poland, Chicago, Japan, Addis Abeba {sic}. It’s sharing that special moment when the energy takes the music, musicians, listeners to another level of consciousness. Ken and I have been fortunate to experience those moments almost all over the world. Together as a duo or in larger group situations as with the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, Lean Left or Fire Room.

“Sometimes you’re travelling 10 hours to get from one town in one country to the other in a completely different country and when you get on stage then, it’s something very special that happens. Through Ken I’ve learned tons about American rock music, blues, soul and funk. I think Ken might say I’m pushing all the Latin music, music from Mali, Colombia, even Norwegian folk music (!). There’s a mutual interest in ethnic music and what’s on the contemporary scene. He´s also an inspiration when it comes to visual art. When on tour, when you’re most tired, worn down, hardly standing up, he’ll push us to go to the local art gallery, which revitalizes the energy you thought was gone — let the art move you, talk to you, give you more, so you can go more.

“Ken is probably the one musician, aside from me (ha ha) that works too much, gives too much and never sees good as good enough. That’s a [good] quality, and sometimes not. But you can only respect a person like Ken who’s willing to push so hard, to eventually see the result and then move on, instead of sitting down to ‘enjoy the harvest.’”

-by Michael Jackson

Originally appeared on the Chicago Sun Times website August 29th 2012.