Ken Vandermark’s Back In Town and Playing Hard


For the past couple of decades, Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark has been racing around the globe, prolifically recording, performing and generating provocative new ideas in music.

His innovative work and seemingly inexhaustible efforts won him a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and an ever-growing audience of listeners who value daring sounds in jazz.

So it comes as something of a surprise to see that Vandermark has anchored himself back home in Chicago for January and February, a significant pause in his worldwide travels.

“To be home for almost three months – because I was around for most of December, too, aside from a few really short trips – it’s unusual for me,” acknowledges Vandermark, 49.

“I’m trying to develop some stuff in Chicago, after being in Europe so much for so many years and focusing really on everything that was happening there.”

Indeed, though Vandermark isn’t spending this season on planes and trains, he has applied his famously galvanic energy to bringing new music to Chicago stages, a boon to anyone who values the man’s creative spirit and the unconventional sounds it yields.

This weekend at the Green Mill, he’ll unveil one of his most ambitious efforts to date, Audio One, a gathering of 10 instrumentalists of considerable reputation and achievement. Audio One features all the personnel that staffed Vandermark’s brawny, brainy Midwest School band, plus vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. But this time the extended ensemble will be premiering new scores by Vandermark (as opposed to the works of Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill that were the foundation of Midwest School’s repertory).

Then, starting on Tuesday, Vandermark will play a weekly engagement through February at Elastic, on North Milwaukee Avenue, with the new Chicago Reed Quartet, featuring Vandermark with Dave Rempis, Nick Mazzarella and Mars Williams, each a formidable player.

Add to this upcoming shows with the rejuvenated Caffeine, a free-improvisation group Vandermark helped power in the 1990s, plus some Vandermark solo sets, and Chicagoans will be able to hear multiple facets of the protean musician’s work over an unusually extended time frame.

To fuel all this activity, Vandermark has been spending hours every day in Chicago composing scores, a luxury he hasn’t enjoyed in a long time.

“I do a lot of writing on the road, but you go into your hotel room or into someone’s apartment after a show and close the door and work – and then you’re gone the next day and you’re trying to hold onto the threads,” he says. “The stability of the framework at home has allowed me to focus more deeply on certain aspects of composing, which is just impossible when I’m touring.”

Perhaps the most promising venture of Vandermark’s winter residency is Audio One. For though Vandermark always has been known as a fiery saxophonist-clarinetist, he has made some of his most important contributions writing for sizable ensembles. Anyone who heard him lead various incarnations of his Territory Band, which he launched with the MacArthur Fellowship funds in 2000, knows that he can write with a degree of subtlety, understatement and even translucency of sound not routinely associated with the jazz avant-garde.

Considering that Audio One features such significant instrumentalists as vibist Adasiewicz, cornetist Josh Berman, trombonist Jeb Bishop and violist Jen Paulson, the sonic possibilities are rich.

“I love writing for large groups,” says Vandermark. “To have something based at home with such great players – after doing the Midwest School stuff in March at the Green Mill – it kind of came to me: This is crazy. These players are so great, they’ve invested in the idea of working together, why not work on original music for this group? … I’m just trying to take buy australia advantage of the creative opportunities here.”

And then there’s the Chicago Reed Quartet, which emerged as Vandermark and a fellow musical adventurer, Chicago saxophonist Dave Rempis, were trying to think of ventures they could create after the widely acclaimed Vandermark 5 ended its tenure in 2010.

“We started thinking we really should do a small-group project again, and we tried to figure something out that might be something new,” says Rempis. “And pretty much everything we came up with was pretty much a reincarnation of one band or another we’ve been in on.

“He came up with the idea of a reed quartet. I resisted, because I’m not a huge fan of saxophones playing together. They often encourage bad habits.”

When Rempis declined, Vandermark had to concede “it really is a crazy thing” to feature four saxophones, notwithstanding the legacy of the World Saxophone Quartet and other such ensembles that reigned in the late 1970s and ’80s and thereafter.

“When I was in college, there were a lot of saxophone quartets – almost every (major) city had one or two groups like that,” recalls Vandermark. “And a lot of that, for my taste, was not very interesting.

“It’s always where the saxophone quartet gets modeled after a string quartet, and the hierarchy of those instruments gets applied to the saxophone.”

Rempis decided to sign on to the concept once he re-examined some World Saxophone Quartet clips on YouTube, says Vandermark, and both men were further inspired when reedists Mazzarella and Williams suggested the same idea.

So how will the Chicago Reed Quartet, which has played a couple of concerts in advance of next month’s residency, be different than earlier ensembles?

“One thing that’s always blown me away about the Ellington-Strayhorn writing is that they almost always include the clarinet in the reed lines,” says Vandermark. “There’s something very powerful about what the clarinet brings to the tone. It really alters things in a really significant way.

“With this, we’re bringing in everything we’ve got: all the saxophones and all the clarinets, and we’ve got a really large palette to work with. … It feels super fresh.”

Vandermark’s work with both Audio One and the Chicago Reed Quartet will be recorded live for future releases, further suggesting that his Chicago residency is anything but a respite.

“I need to be on stage to deal with the challenge of playing,” says Vandermark. “And the reason I play the music I play is that it can be different every night, and that’s kind of the point of it.

“Basically, the crux of the matter is risk. And whether you succeed or not, at least (you’re) going into the performance with the idea: Let’s find something new to say. And I’m addicted to that.”

Once Vandermark’s Chicago residency inevitably comes to a close, he’ll resume his life on the road, with all the challenges and rewards that entails.

“Getting on a plane is boring,” says Vandermark. “But where you go can be life altering.”

Ken Vandermark’s Audio One plays 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552. The Chicago Reed Quartet performs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays in February at Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee Ave., second floor; $8; or 773-772-3616. Caffeine – with Vandermark, Jim Baker and Steve Hunt – plays at 9:30 p.m. Feb. 20 at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $10; And Vandermark plays solo at 10 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont Ave.; $10;

-By Howard Reich

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Originally published in the Chicago Tribune January 28th 2014

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