August 16th 2013



Originally published in Dusted Magazine, August 16, 2013 edition, as part of the article, “Listed.” This is an unedited version of the text.

-Ken Vandermark

1. Mahmoud Ahmed: Ere Mela Mela, Ethiopiques 7 (Buda Musique, 1999).

I started listening to music from Ethiopia when the Ethiopiques series began in the end of the 1990s, but I have to thank Terrie Ex for bringing me face to face with the magnificence of the music from that country- initially, through a trip to Addis during the winter of 2009 where I played with artists from Ethiopia for the first time, and then later, with the work on the second album he made with Getachew Mekuria and The Ex & Friends, “Y’Anbessaw Tezeta.” The combination of detail and flexibility within the enormous variety of Ethiopian music has been a huge source of inspiration for me. The Ethiopiques series and the albums that Terrie has released on Terp Records provide an excellent resource for what’s available historically and on the contemporary scene. But if you’re going to start somewhere, you can’t do better than with the great singer Mahmoud Ahmed, and this collection is outstanding.

2. Derek Bailey: Ballads (Tzadik, 2002).

I don’t think there is a way to question the importance and impact of Derek Bailey’s work on the history of improvised music. Much like Marcel Duchamp’s influence on the history of art, which still deals with the ramifications of his ideas, Bailey changed the landscape and the potential of improvisation forever. And like Duchamp, his work is filled with provocative contradictions, not least of which is the album, “Ballads.” For a person to spend much of their creative life assaulting the orthodoxies of jazz to then record this document of jazz standards at the end of their life is akin to Duchamp telling everyone he had given up art for chess, only to reveal Étant Donnés, a piece he had been working on for two decades, after his death.

3. Anthony Braxton: Dortmund (Quartet) 1976 (hat ART, 1991).

Like many musicians, I owe Anthony Braxton a lot. In 1992, I visited Champagne, Illinois to see him lecture and give master classes, despite the fact I was not enrolled in the school’s music program. My girlfriend encouraged me to bring a cassette of a gig I had done in Chicago for Braxton to listen to. At that time I was struggling to find like-minded musicians to collaborate with and, since moving to Chicago from Boston in the fall of 1989, I had failed and was basically writing tunes and practicing, playing one-off gigs here and there, things always leading to a dead end. It had been a long two and a half years of frustration and disappointment, and I was about to move back to Boston where I still knew musicians who would work with me. Braxton listened to the tape, much to the chagrin of the official students attending his master class, and told me he loved it. For one of my heroes to give me such an endorsement at that period in my life made me realize I had complete license to continue with my ideas. And this, coupled with meeting Kent Kessler and Michael Zerang to form the Vandermark Quartet in the same year, changed everything for me. Braxton’s recordings are remarkable. Of all of them, “Dortmund 1976,” with George Lewis, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul could be the most extraordinary- a working band playing at the height of its powers, free music played with the discipline and velocity of one of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s quintets.

4. James Brown: Funk Power 1970: A Brand New Thang (Polydor, 1996).

I got to see James Brown play twice in the 1980’s, both at low points in his career- before his #1 hit from “Rocky III” and after he was arrested on a bender that crossed two state lines (read the chapter, “The Godfather’s Blues,” in Stanley Booth’s book, “Rhythm Oil,” for a very interesting report on the events that led up to that event). Both shows were impossibly good, both were life altering. But neither performance could touch his work from the 1970s, particularly that with the band that started the decade with him. Watching the footage that goes hand in hand with his album, “Love Power Piece, Live At The Olympia, Paris 1971,” you get a sense of just how tremendous the band was; perhaps for the first and only time in Brown’s career his backing band blew him off stage (with musicians like the Collins brothers, Fred Wesley, Bobby Byrd, and Jabo Starks in the band, anything is possible). This collection of studio sides by the same group is awe inspiring, the highlight being one of Brown’s greatest tracks, “Since You’ve Been Gone.”

5. John Cage: Indeterminacy (Folkways, 1959).

Whether you like it or not, John Cage altered music for everyone. And I like it, very, very much. As a composer and thinker he raised more essential questions and proposed more creative solutions for music than any other artist that I can think of, and affected the visual arts and dance nearly as much in the process. The range of his compositional world is vast, from “silence” to “Roaratorio,” from percussion ensembles to prepared piano, from solo violin etudes to walls of electronic sound. Considering all the music he worked on, I feel that “Indeterminacy” gives the best combination of his thinking and humor (presented through short texts he reads) and his music (which is performed by David Tudor, one of the greatest musicians of the second half of the 20th century).

6. Miles Davis: Pangaea (Columbia, 1975).

The 30 year trajectory of Miles Davis’ career- from the mid 1940s when he joined Charlie Parker’s band, to the mid 1970s when he was exploring new sounds and rhythms for improvisation and composition based on the developments of funk and rock- is one of the most astounding creative arcs in the history of music. The stylistic shifts and innovations- from bebop, to the development of the “cool school”, to hard bop, to modal jazz, the recordings with Gil Evans, to “time, no changes,” to the electric period that began in the late 1960s- are completely unprecedented; even Duke Ellington didn’t take the potential for the intersection of improvisation and composition as far. I’ve picked “Pangaea,” not because it’s Davis’ “best album,” but because selecting only one from his career is impossible. “Pangaea,” the last recorded statement before his retirement from music (he made a comeback in the 1980s), is the end of this beautiful arc. In a sense, everything he created during that history is contained in this hour and a half of music.

7. The Ex: Joggers & Smoggers (Fist Puppet, 1989).

The first album I bought by The Ex, sometime in the mid 1990’s. I had heard about the band from my friend and music colleague, John Corbett, and I decided to buy this album from their discography, figuring since it was a double cd I’d get a better cross section of what the band was about. My logic may have been a bit off but the results were spot on- not only did the group completely blow me away, but the music also included performances by two members of the ICP Orchestra (Ab Baars and Wolter Wierbos), one of the most important improvising ensembles in the history of the music. The inclusiveness of The Ex has continued to expand, and involves many different kinds of players, including musicians from Ethiopia (Getachew Mekuria), as well as side projects with sound poets (Anne-James Chaton) and improvisers (Han Bennink, Xavier Charles), as well as an extended version of the band, The Ex & Brass Unbound.

8. Mississippi Fred McDowell: You Gotta Move (Arhoolie, 1989).

Derek Bailey reinvented the guitar. Mississippi Fred McDowell reinvented it too, but in an entirely different way. If you watch him perform, “Shake ‘Em On Down,” the eye describes one thing, your ear describes another. Much like Bailey, McDowell created an approach to the guitar that was completely efficient and perfect for his art. He did this by finding an innovative way to mix the sound and rhythms from his instrument with his vocals, words trailing off after they’d expressed what he wanted to say, fragments combining into an essential world view, projected through his music. McDowell’s albums are truly great, I love this one in particular because it’s so direct and well recorded.

9. Joe McPhee: Tenor (hatHut, 1976).

This is the most important album of my life. After hearing its combination of melody and experimentation when I was 17, two things became very clear: I wanted to play music like McPhee, and improvisations that had formerly seemed incomprehensible, by artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Albert Ayler, had now become self-evident. The sound of Joe McPhee’s unaccompanied tenor playing in a farmhouse somewhere in Switzerland opened a door and put me on the path I’m still walking today. I am very, very thankful.

10. Wire: Pink Flag (EMI, 1977).

This is my favorite album by my favorite rock band. Actually, I could say it’s my favorite 21 albums by my favorite rock band- each track feels like an expression of a different aesthetic created at the start of the post-punk period of UK music. Cuts are just as long as they need to be to make their creative point, 15 pieces clock in under 2 minutes, with the tour de force, “Three Girl Rhumba,” getting things done in 1’23”. Now that’s rock ‘n roll.