Forty-nine years after cancer took John Coltrane and 46 years after Albert Ayler washed up in the East River, the question only grows more pertinent — why did that improviser play what he or she played? Ever since free jazz opened the floodgates, forbidden sounds have been given license, structures shattered, assumptions questioned, genres mashed-up, interactive rules broken, and with each challenge a little extra responsibility settles upon the improviser’s shoulders to make sense of what they are doing in the moment and in the context of all the flux that has preceded it. In a world where you can play anything, you had better be able to justify whatever note you choose to put after the last one.
Ken Vandermark knows about such things. The Chicago-based musician and composer has never simply written pieces, thoughtlessly improvised, or merely played whatever saxophones (tenor and baritone) and clarinets (Bb and bass) he brought to the gig. He’s presented and analyzed the process of making music, sometimes privately but often quite publicly in liner notes, interviews, on-line forums and this documentary. How awareness of history shapes the next thing you play, how the way band gets to know each other directs the music, how the material gets honed and blunted by circumstances — it’s all part of the work and part of the art. You might suppose that Site Specific, a 300-page book that contains two CDs of solo performances, might further explicate the work, and it does, but not the way you might suppose.
There are maybe a dozen pages of text — one forward, one transcribed speech, one page of credits and acknowledgements. The rest of the pages bear photographs that Vandermark has taken during his years of relentless touring. Like his confederate in the Ex and Lean Left, Andy Moor, it seems that he has a camera in his hand whenever he isn’t playing an instrument or scheduling the next tour. As a photographer, Vandermark is very much a composer, concerned with shape, color and contrast. Objects and surfaces get plenty of attention, cheap bactrim people not too much. The sequenced images don’t tell a story, but the iterations of shapes and the ways that those sequences persist or are interrupted and resumed correspond to Vandermark’s musical organization. Whether selecting photos to print or sounds to play, he deals with variations on an idea, testing and evaluating and continually changing.
While the photos present Vandermark’s photographic responses to what he sees, the two accompanying CDs present his musical ones. They comprise solo performances on his various horns recorded in four different spaces — a house concert in Chicago IL and a ballroom, train trestle and skate park selected by Tim Barnes in Louisville KY. The house concert, which took place in the home of an esteemed concert organizer, confronts Vandermark with a small, rapt audience, and each piece is named for an improviser who has owned the solo format. He rewards their quiet attention with loudly projected concentration. The pieces are immaculately paced and, rather like the photos, arranged into coherent expressions of consonance and rupture.
And then comes another rupture — the leap from blur-free room sound to echo-distorted ballroom ambience. A bit of googling turns up little about the Workhouse Ballroom, but Vandermark’s choice to name each piece “Cavern” tells you what you need to know about its sonic characteristics. Given his penchant for eventful playing, he adapts remarkably well, delaying his flow just enough to keep the echo from swamping his quicker phrases until he is ready to fold echo and expressed note into one dense but deftly constructed sandwich of sound. This sets up Vandermark’s practice for the rest of the album. He tests his surroundings, finds what works within them on each instrument, and then goes on to develop music that asserts whatever parts of his vocabulary is most appropriate to the setting. Why does he play it that way? Because of what he knows and what space allows.
Originally published at http://dustedmagazine.tumblr.com/post/148151299269/ken-vandermark-site-specific-audiographic on July 29th, 2016