‘Genius’ at Work


Time is running out, and Ken Vandermark knows it.

The European musicians who staff the biggest, most ambitious musical project of his career — his Territory Band-3 — soon will be arriving in Chicago for rehearsals, and he needs to spend practically every waking hour completing the scores.

So he sits in the basement of his North Side home — sheet music scattered everywhere, a boom box churning various bleeps and blips — trying to come up with ways of notating sounds so new and original that symbols for them have not yet been invented.

Ready or not, Vandermark and his groundbreaking Territory Band-3 will take the stage at the Chicago Cultural Center on Sept. 22 (coincidentally Vandermark’s 38th birthday), headlining Chicago’s fourth annual World Music Festival. Vandermark, whose experimental music won him a MacArthur “genius” award in 1999, never has enjoyed such mainstream visibility at a city-sponsored music festival, and he knows how much is riding on this performance, as well as follow-up dates in Germany, Sweden, Norway and Austria.

“I think it’ll fly, because over and over I’ve seen audiences come to concerts eager and willing to have their expectations challenged,” says Vandermark, whose Territory Band concept is nothing if not challenging. With its outlandish mixture of acoustic, electronic, improvised and composed music, as well as its daring use of long silences, sharp dissonance and extremes of loud and soft, it brazenly defies easy categorization or description.

Musical experimentation on this scale would have been impossible, says Vandermark, without the $265,000 he’s receiving from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is distributing the funds to him over a period of five years. Unlike many fellowships and grants, however, the MacArthur “genius” awards come with no strings attached — recipients are free to spend, invest or sock away the money as they see fit.

“Our feeling is that the individual rather than the foundation is in the best position to know what to do with the money,” says Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, which will announce its next group of winners on Sept. 25.

To date, the list of MacArthur artists, scientists and scholars has included such well-known figures as pianist Stephen Hough, composer Bright Sheng, choreographer Bill T. Jones and Chicago director Mary Zimmerman, as well as others virtually unknown to the general public.

“Some have used the money to buy time off from the universities or institutions where they work, some have bought studios and equipment, some have used the money to go into totally different directions than what they already were doing,” adds Socolow, emphasizing that MacArthur Fellows are chosen in a years-long, secret process by unnamed nominators and that no one may apply for the award.

“The fellowship is not for what they’ve achieved but what they may achieve,” Socolow says. “We’re guessing at their potential.”

Vandermark wasted no time using part of his money to create the Territory Band, an ensemble that stands out for its sheer size (12 musicians), its arsenal of instruments (including double percussion and electronics) and its novel approach to big-band writing and improvisation.

Different strokes

As Vandermark sweats over a new score, for instance, he writes in a fashion that probably would startle traditionalists. The angular lines, zigzags and arrows he uses to trace the progress of the music hardly conform to standard musical notation. The musical themes he has penned are so spare and the written instructions for the musicians so cryptic (such as “overtone wall with electronic feedback”) that one wonders how the players have a clue as to exactly what it is he wants.

“But I’m specifically trying to keep things ambiguous, and to keep the notations on the score to a minimum,” says Vandermark, who indeed compresses all of the information for a 10-15 minute piece onto a single page of score paper.

“The idea is to give them a setting in which they can play what they want, what they do best, but based on a sketch that everyone in the band is using as a starting point.”

In some ways, the process is not so far removed from the techniques of classic big-band leaders such as Duke Ellington, who created themes that he felt best suited his players, then encouraged them to riff on the material during solos.

But Vandermark has gone further out on a limb, giving his players freedom to improvise en masse, as well as in instrumental sections and in solos. Some of the most creative musicmaking, then, takes place onstage, when the players respond to one another, while the audience tries to make sense of the swirl of sound that results.

“It’s a blast to play, but it’s definitely not easy,” says bassist Kent Kessler, a longtime Vandermark collaborator. “In fact, it can be very difficult, because you’re hearing so much sound around you all at once, you’re constantly shifting gears from one section of a piece to the next, from one group of instruments to the next, and even from one style of composition to the next.

“Plus you’ve got guys of five different nationalities trying to come to terms with each other, and trying to give Ken what he wants.”

Playing it by ear

That, in itself, is a formidable task, since Vandermark acknowledges that he has found it difficult to get the sounds in his head onto the page. The first time around, the music that the band plays in rehearsal may seem to him light-years away from the way he thought it would sound, which means he needs to revise the notation or simply drop pieces that aren’t working the way he wanted.

For five days straight, Vandermark and friends will plow through this music in rehearsal, creating what Kessler calls “planned structures” rather than “compositions” in the usual sense. These musical landscapes will allow players to improvise freely in some passages, to play a loose-limbed backup in others.

This kind of high-wire musical act would not be possible, Vandermark says, without the “creative improvisers” he has convened for the occasion, including British drummer Paul Lytton, German trumpeter Axel Dorner and several Chicago radicals, among them reedist Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and trombonist Jeb Bishop. It’s their input during rehearsals, as much as Vandermark’s ideas on paper, that make possible the Territory Band, and its unusual brand of large-ensemble, electro-acoustic improvisation.

It wasn’t until Vandermark won the MacArthur prize, however, that he was able to dream of a project as large-scale, artistically ambitious and, therefore, as costly as the Territory Band. The cash made it possible to bring to Chicago the international roster of musicians Vandermark wanted for the project and “to treat them in the way they deserve to be treated — in other words, to pay them,” Vandermark says.

Even so, many of the players will crash in Vandermark’s home for the week’s worth of rehearsals and performances, to make the MacArthur money stretch further.

From the start of Vandermark’s Territory Band experiment, it was obvious that he was onto something.

The band’s stunning debut at the Empty Bottle, in February 2000, attested to the stylistic range and technical acuity of its personnel (then nine musicians), who conveyed some of the muscular swing rhythms and frenetic virtuosity of the “territory bands” that toured the Midwest and the South in the 1930s. But unlike the great, lusty ensembles of Andy Kirk, George E. Lee and others, Vandermark’s alternative version reveled in the unconventional, non-chordal musical language of today’s jazz avant-garde.

Moreover, the band’s first recording, “Transatlantic Bridge” (on Chicago-based Okka Disk), proved that the debut concert was no fluke, with critics around the world struck but its originality. “Vandermark is just as capable of deeply reverent traditional bopping as he is of totally pushing the envelope,” wrote critic David Keenan in The Sunday Herald in Scotland. “He combines both here, with ferocious soloing tied up in big-band action.”

Merging sounds

When Vandermark unveiled his Territory Band-2, as he dubbed last year’s incarnation of the ensemble, he expanded the lineup to a dozen musicians, including the brilliant Chicago electronics improviser Kevin Drumm. Thus the ensemble started to merge acoustic and electronic sounds more daringly than virtually any other experimental band on the planet.

Yet despite the originality of the venture, or perhaps because of it, the Territory Band remains something of a luxury for Vandermark, his players and its fans. The MacArthur money has allowed Vandermark to gather the ensemble once a year for an intense rehearsal-performance period, the musicians then going their own ways, until it’s time to regroup.

But the band may be on the verge of something bigger, thanks to the marquee engagement on the World Music Festival’s opening weekend, the release next week of the band’s newest recording, “Atlantis” (also on Okka Disk), and the forthcoming European tour, which includes a spot on the prestigious Berlin Jazz Festival.

Given a chance to be heard at prominent venues around the world, an ensemble as pioneering and virtuosic as this could gain momentum rapidly.

“This band means a great deal to Ken, so it would be great if people around the world stood up and noticed,” says Bruno Johnson, owner of Okka Disk and a longtime champion of Vandermark’s work.

“The MacArthur money gave him the chance to do something that most artists can’t do, which is to advance his music in ways that would have been impossible otherwise. And that’s just what he’s doing.”

Yet Vandermark’s journey is not easy. Sitting in his basement, he pours his third cup of coffee, hoping the influx of caffeine will help him make sense of the notes, lines and squiggles he has been penciling all day.

“The band sure is bigger than anything I’ve done, the scores are more complicated, the demands on the musicians are great,” he says, sounding nearly overwhelmed by the challenge he has undertaken.

“So this may be the most important thing I’ve done,” he adds.

“It’s certainly the most expensive.”

A world of possibilities

The fourth annual World Music Festival runs Sept. 20-29 in several Chicago locations. For the full schedule and ticket information, go to www.metromix.com or www.cityofchicago.org/WorldMusic; phone 312-742-1938.

Following are five events that look particularly promising:

Luciana Souza & Romero Lubambo, 9:30 p.m. Sept. 20 at HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo Drive, 312-362-9707. Vocalist Souza and guitarist Lubambo perform Brazilian duets.

Omar Sosa Octet, 8 p.m. Sept. 21 at Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., 312-397-4010. The innovative Cuban pianist leads his large group.

Territory Band-3, 2 p.m. Sept. 22 at Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., 312-744-6630. Chicago’s Ken Vandermark presides over an international ensemble performing original compositions.

Grazyna Auguscik & Jarek Bester’s “Past Forward,” 8 p.m. Sept. 25 at Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave., 773-276-3600. Auguscik and Bester offer the second performance of their new work, which was unveiled recently on a side stage at the Chicago Jazz Festival.

JUBA Collective, 10 p.m. Sept. 28 at Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave., 312-929-1322. El’Zabar’s cross-genre project merges jazz, blues, R&B, hip-hop and other genres.

— Howard Reich

Originally published September 8th 2002 on chicagotribune.com

Original link: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2002-09-08/news/0209080057_1_daniel-socolow-ken-vandermark-world-music-festival