The Sound of Genius: Ken Vandermark and Jason Moran


Not once during the first two sets of Saturday night’s show at the Green Mill did anyone say the word “genius” out loud.

Yet many in the overflow crowd surely realized that two young recipients of MacArthur Fellowships, or “genius grants,” were demonstrating exactly why they won the accolades. The fire-breathing Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, 46, received his MacArthur in 1999, when he was 34. The innovative New York pianist Jason Moran, 36, became a MacArthur Fellow – and recipient of an award now worth $500,000 – last September.

Joined by Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker and New York drummer Nasheet Waits (both comparably adventurous souls), Vandermark and Moran offered an object lesson in the meaning of genius, as expressed in jazz. For everything this newly formed quartet played bristled with the spirit of invention, experimentation and relentless risk-taking.

True, not all their high-flown soliloquies worked, not all the ensemble passages cohered.

But isn’t that what geniuses do – take chances that others dare not pursue, risk ridicule in the hopes of finding a new path?

“We call them the Fearsome Foursome,” said Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo in introducing the band’s second set, and he hit it just right that time. For even though Waits and Parker haven’t been tapped by the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation (yet), they’re both free spirits willing to stake everything on the chance to say something new in sound.

Until this past weekend, these four musicians never had played together (though Waits thrives in Moran’s Bandwagon), and no one outside this group knows if they ever will again. But for a few precious hours, some listeners heard where a few of the most forward-thinking jazz artists in America are headed.

Playing from skeletal scores that barely outlined themes, this quartet covered a more sweeping range of ideas than skeptics of the jazz avant-garde might have expected. Tender melodic passages alternated with tempestuous bursts of noise (or something close to it); rhythmically chaotic pieces were followed by good old-fashioned swing backbeats. Practically everything in the syntax of jazz was open for discussion – and re-examination.

If you’d closed your eyes and didn’t know who was on the bill, you might never have guessed that was Vandermark unspooling plush, warmly lyric phrases in Waits’ “Kush.” The softness and delicacy of Vandermark’s playing here shed light on his understanding of an earlier era of tenor saxophone history, even if his avoidance of vibrato – or another other hint of sentimentality – placed this music firmly in the here and now.

Moran has been a fearless adventurer at the keyboard throughout his still-young career, but he rarely has plunged as deeply into free-form improvisation as he did in Vandermark’s company. During portions of this evening, the two musicians left jazz convention in the dust, changing tone, texture and direction every few beats or so (that is, when there even was a beat).

In Paul Motian’s “Fiasco,” which opened the evening, the combination of Vandermark’s jagged lines on tenor and Moran’s abstract, agitated accompaniments on piano produced a profoundly unsettled music. In Moran’s “Refraction,” which closed the second set, the pianist’s hammered main theme and Vandermark’s howling lines on tenor were guaranteed to rattle nervous systems.

If some of the evening’s music-making proved diffuse and uncentered, surely that can be excused when authored by a band in the first throes of coming to life. It’s the high points that matter most in this scenario, and they were frequent enough, and inspiring enough, to make you hope these four musicians play together again. Soon.

Ken Vandermark’s new festival

Speaking of Vandermark, the ever-entrepreneurial musician will present his new Resonance Festival from March 2 through 6 in Chicago and Milwaukee.

“This festival focuses on the growing impact that Poland is having on the contemporary jazz and improvised music scene, bringing work that has happened primarily in that country to the United States,” notes Vandermark on his web site.

Here’s the complete lineup:

10 p.m. March 2 at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave.: Reed Trio (Mikolaj Trzaska, Ken Vandermark, Waclaw Zimpel); Inner Ear (Tim Daisy, Per-Ake Holmlander, Steve Swell, Mikolaj Trzaska); ad hoc unit.

10 p.m. March 3 at Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee Ave.: Tim Daisy/Ken Vandermark Duo; Mark Tokar/Mikolaj Trzaska/Michael Zerang Trio; ad hoc unit.

9 p.m. March 4 at the Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave., Milwaukee: Four (Tim Daisy, Dave Rempis, Mark Tokar, Waclaw Zimpel); Brass Trio (Magnus Broo, Per-Ake Holmlander, Steve Swell); ad hoc unit.

3 p.m. March 5 at the Sugar Maple, 441 E. Lincoln Ave., Milwaukee: The Resonance Ensemble.

2 p.m. March 6 at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.: The Resonance Ensemble.

For more information, visit

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Originally published February 7th 2011 on

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