Sax at Large by Peter Margasak


Ken Vandermark’s dogged persistence has helped him weather some rough times in Chicago to become one of the busiest jazz saxophone players around.

A little more than a year ago, Vandermark had his bags packed and was ready to return to his native Boston. Even though he was leading a quartet, he was both disappointed and frustrated with the scant opportunities he had found in Chicago. “Michael (Zerang, Vandermark Quartet drummer) got really mad at me when I told him,” Vandermark recalls. “He convinced me to stick it out for a year. From the moment I decided to stay, everything just exploded.”

It was while studying film at Montreal’s McGill University that Vandermark committed himself to playing jazz and improvised music. After finishing his schooling, he gigged around Boston for several years. Unhappy with Boston’s rigid social climate, despite significant musical enrichment, Vandermark moved in 1989 to Chicago, home to a few college friends.

For several years Vandermark struggled to make headway in the city’s often closed-off jazz scene. He played sporadically with Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble and drummer Damon Short, but it wasn’t until hooking up with Zerang that he found a consistently rewarding situation. Along with bassist Kent Kessler and guitarist Chris DeChiara, they formed what was to become the Vandermark Quartet in January 1992.

“The band name came by default,” the 28-year-old Vandermark says. “I’d been writing lots of music for a couple of years, and suddenly I had a band, so I was bringing tons of stuff in. We were looking for band names, and they were all really bad. One day I came to rehearsal, and Michael just said, `We’re going to call it the Vandermark Quartet.’ It’s kind of weird. The majority of the material is mine-about 70 percent-but it’s truly a collective effort.”

At the same time, however, strife within the band left the saxophonist unsatisfied enough to consider leaving the group and Chicago altogether. “I had already quit my job and notified all my friends in Boston that I was coming back,” Vandermark explains. Swayed by Zerang’s pep talk, the group emerged with a new enthusiasm, and guitarist Todd Colburn replaced DeChiara. A series of weekly engagements at HotHouse resulted in growing audiences. Today the quartet is one of the city’s most visible and adventurous jazz groups.

Yet, as Vandermark points out, it’s not luck that has been responsible for the group’s success.

“I feel very strongly about this music being a twofold thing,” Vandermark says. “First is the music itself, which is basically untouchable. I play the music I want to play. I have no interest in trying to play something that will get a certain audience. The second thing, putting it bluntly, is the selling of the music. That’s a really important thing. The problem is that very few people care about this type of music.

“But if you look at a group like Kronos Quartet, it can be done. They’re playing music that’s not `commercially viable,’ but they’re getting people who read Rolling Stone packing houses to see them because they’ve figured out how to market themselves. By working hard on the business end, I’ve enabled the group to get the opportunity to play every week.”

Vandermark even maintains a day job amid all this musical activity. As he explains, “I went from almost leaving Chicago to playing Europe (with NRG) in a year, going from practicing in a room alone to rehearsing with five bands in a week. When I’m on stage, there’s no place I’d rather be. It’s not an exercise in art; I just love to play.”

Although Vandermark also performs free improvisation in Caffeine, “punk jazz” in the Flying Luttenbachers, honking R&B sax in the rock band Waste Kings and woolly free jazz in the NRG Ensemble, the busy musician prides himself on the quartet most.

“Big Head Eddie,” released on the local Platypus label, is the group’s blistering CD debut. (A CD release party for the combo will be held Saturday at HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee Ave., 312-235-2334.)

The group’s high-intensity, edgy fusion repels tidy categorization. Describing the music himself, Vandermark says, “It’s not whether it’s rock or jazz, or improvised or classical. It’s about playing music that’s going to kick someone’s head in.”

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, July 22nd 1993,