Ken Vandermark Featured in Jazz Times!


The posts on saxophonist, composer and bandleader Ken Vandermark’s Facebook page appear almost daily. His 5,000 friends—Facebook’s limit—are able to view gallery-quality photographs, notices for gigs by him and friends, erudite thoughts on the arts and popular culture, and postcard-like updates from the road and home. They’re always interesting and generally longer than a pithy sound bite designed to generate responses.

Nonetheless, the posts from early January, during his weeklong residency at the Stone in the East Village of Manhattan, were particularly poignant. He shared his thoughts on what each lineup offered, what happened and the history between him and the other players, including old friends, current collaborators and new faces.

No doubt this is just the kind of thing that Stone artistic director John Zorn hopes for in inviting his fellow musicians to use the space for 12 sets of music. (Vandermark and Zorn improvised together, for the first time ever, at a Stone benefit set two nights before Vandermark’s week began.) The only rules of a Stone residency are that the musician should perform in each set and try to give an overview of who they are as an artist. “I took that seriously,” Vandermark, 51, said of the mandate two months later, at his home in the Andersonville neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. “I immediately began to figure out how to get the Europeans over. I also had a list of New Yorkers that I hadn’t played with but wanted to work with. So I contacted everyone, assuming that because everyone is very, very busy that half of them wouldn’t be available. Everyone wanted to do it, which was really flattering but also a little terrifying. All told, it was 25 musicians.”

Vandermark, who tours regularly in Europe with a rotating stable of European improvisers as well as an occasional American, knew that flying people in was a gamble; the Stone holds 75 people, and musicians play for the door. But a few of the overseas players, like his DEK bandmates Elisabeth Harnik (piano) and Didi Kern (drums), received European arts funding, and in the end the whole endeavor broke even, which was Vandermark’s goal. “It was also a chance to really get out of Chicago and spend some time in New York and see what’s going on there firsthand,” he added. “Normally I come for a day or two to play, or come to visit museums on vacation, but I got to spend some time there with people and see what they’re doing firsthand. Even though New York is still in the U.S., it always seemed farther away to me than Europe.”

Longtime fans who perused the schedule would have noted that there were no appearances by groups like DKV, the now-defunct Vandermark 5 or his larger Chicago-based groups Audio One, the Territory Band and the Resonance Ensemble. Instead, the residency was a window into what Vandermark’s thinking about now and what kind of work he will be doing in the future. “It really sparked a realization that I’m not paying enough attention to some stuff that is happening in New York,” he said. “I loved their attitude about work, their intensity and their discipline for doing the work. I stayed with Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman for a few days, and it was amazing to see how hard they work on their music and what they think about. Those are the kind of people I want to work with.”

One of his most important collaborators in recent years is the expansive Brooklyn-based trumpeter Nate Wooley. The two celebrated the release of All Directions Home at the Stone with a duo set, and played in a quartet with Ikue Mori, on electronics, and Joe Morris, on guitar. “Ken’s duo with Nate Wooley is particularly good,” said Morris, who has known Vandermark since the reedist was in high school near Boston and attending shows with his father, a writer on jazz and improvised music. “He’s composed some beautiful pieces for that, drawing inspiration from John Carter and Bobby Bradford but maintaining his own voice. He and Nate work so well together. I think that situation in particular has boosted Ken’s enthusiasm and focus.”

“We did one tour as the duo, during which we played the first set as a series of solos,” Wooley recalled of an early-2015 engagement. “I’ve done a lot of solo tours, and one does grow playing solo night after night, but with Ken it became a kind of hyper-drive situation where each of us was pushing the other to play something new and radically different every night.”

A lucky few were able to see Vandermark as a member of bassist Eric Revis’ high-profile 11:11 quartet, also featuring drummer Nasheet Waits and pianist Jason Moran. The mobbed set at the Stone was a bit nutty, Vandermark indicated, with one audience member fainting from heat exhaustion, and Revis’ bass in need of repair. (Fans will get another chance to catch the band in August, when it plays this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, with Kris Davis subbing on piano.) “God knows the dozens of times my dad took me to see Art Blakey, and listening to Miles Davis, Monk and Parker, Ellington and whatnot,” Vandermark said of the seemingly unlikely chemistry of the quartet, which recorded 2012’s Parallax. “But usually I don’t play that music. And here were these guys who did work in that general area or field. So playing with them brings me into this place that is different from my other work, and I find it super exhilarating.”

The feeling is mutual for Revis. “These days, as a rhythm section player I find that horn players have a tendency to take more than they give on the bandstand,” he said. “This is never the case with Ken. He is always engaged in the music and always giving of himself to make the music happen.”

As Vandermark explained, the most startling evening at the Stone was the Saturday night featuring cellist Okkyung Lee, turntablist Marina Rosenfeld and electronic musician Christof Kurzmann for the early set, and trombonist Steve Swell, bassist William Parker and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love on the later one. He was most concerned about the first set because of the untested lineup, and took the latter for granted because the players were all improvisers and of the same ilk—everyone had played together except Nilssen-Love and Parker. Yet, as any real improviser can tell you, you never know what will happen. According to Vandermark, the first set was a highlight of the week. The second? Not so much.

“I just couldn’t find a way into the music,” Vandermark said in Chicago, still sounding annoyed with himself. “Everyone else felt great about it, and Steve was surprised when I told him I felt terrible about my playing. The problem became, when it wasn’t happening, that I started to think. And that is the death of that.”

While the Stone run provided the opportunity for Vandermark to work with a lot of different people, it was also a rare opportunity for New York audiences to hear some of the best European improvisers and learn why he plays with them so often. “For the last decade or more, the majority of my creative stuff has been overseas. It’s because I met likeminded people over there, or people that I just needed to work with. I meet these kinds of people and there’s a sensibility that I connect with. I was finding this less and less here in Chicago,” Vandermark said.

He still plays occasionally in his home city, where he’s lived since the late 1980s, but the big draw has been his wife, Ellen, a pediatrician. The two share a converted duplex—purchased before the neighborhood gentrified—with their dogs, Nico and Billie. Wide open, stylish and functional in a Midwestern sort of way, it’s often a hotel for the touring musicians Vandermark works with.

The downstairs office offers clues about the mercurial life and interests of the occupant. There, a music stand holds new and used staff paper with Post-it notes of instruction, Wite-Out and a metronome. Books on art, philosophy and music, as well as CDs and paperwork, sit stockpiled on a desk. The loft-like second floor has a refectory-style dining table that holds more stacks.

That freewheeling assortment of piles and stacks could be an allegory for Vandermark’s creative m.o. The retail website Catalytic-Sound—a cooperative venture he shares with longtime associates Nilssen-Love, Peter Brötzmann, Mats Gustafsson and Joe McPhee—lists 188 releases that Vandermark has played on in the last 23 years. That averages out to an album every six weeks. Vandermark’s expansive website lists 52 different groups/collaborations/projects, with 15 of them active and four on hiatus.

Of the 33 listed as inactive, the Vandermark 5 was his most prolific group so far, with 17 albums between 1997-2009, though the Territory Band did six albums in seven years and the Resonance Ensemble did five albums (including a 10-CD box set) between 2008 and 2013. The money he received from a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1999 helped with some of this, but Vandermark also underwrote two subsequent tours by Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, of which he is a charter member. As Vandermark recalled, “When people heard I got the MacArthur, they said, ‘That’s great. Now you can take a break.’ I remember thinking, ‘Are you crazy? This is the time. Now we have the resources to do all this stuff. This is when you run.’”

Vandermark’s passion isn’t just for musicians and music. A film-studies major at his alma mater McGill University in Montreal, he loves to talk movies, books and the visual arts. He is also a skilled photographer and a fan of architecture, the fruits of which are highlighted on his active Instagram feed and particularly in the recently released Site Specific, a beautifully rendered 250-page book featuring his photos of different objects, graphics and environments. Included with the book, released through his own Audiographic label, are two CDs of solo music recorded at a house concert, under a train trestle, in a giant manmade cavern and at a skatepark.

Vandermark claims it’s not in his nature to be organized. But early on he learned that if something was going to happen for him he would have to make it happen himself, much as his friends did in underground rock bands around Chicago. Many jazz musicians oversee their careers, but the level of Vandermark’s activity would seem to indicate a clone at work simultaneously, a celebrity-level personal management team, or someone unburdened by the need for sleep.

Despite today’s ease of connectivity, he says he puts in more work now than even 10 years ago. Most of his gigs are one-nighters, which means more travel. As with every musician in the business, music sales are way down from the pre-digital age. If he wants to work, for artistic and financial reasons he needs to do most things himself. When it comes to the art, however, collaboration is essential. “I’m not a painter and I’m not a writer,” he pointed out. “In general, I need people to realize the ideas. I’m writing or someone else is; or we are improvising. In general, I need someone.”

By nature and, he would argue, necessity, Vandermark also presents the music of others. He launched the Empty Bottle Jazz and Improvised Music series with writer John Corbett in the late ’90s, highlighting many of the Europeans he worked with as well as locals. Vandermark then collaborated with Mitch Cocanig at the Hideout, and now he is one of three working in conjunction with Experimental Sound Studio on a new Monday night salon series called Option. The idea is for solo (and occasionally duo or trio) performance in the small studio, with video and audio recording. This is followed by a talk between the performer and either Vandermark, guitarist Andrew Clinkman or drummer Tim Daisy. The discussions cover the performance as well as the artists’ influences and broader interests.

“What we do now with Option is an extension of the work that was first done at the Empty Bottle,” Daisy wrote in an e-mail. He was a regular there even before joining the Vandermark 5 in 2001. “We present a diverse array of talent from both Chicago and abroad, with the hopes of developing a new audience base for the music while also building on the past infrastructure—much of which was developed thanks to Ken’s tireless commitment.”

In early March, when I visited, the series’ featured guest was the New York-based saxophonist and composer Michaël Attias. Despite the fact that the studio had a full staff for setup and he wasn’t performing or conducting the interview, Vandermark was there a half-hour before the first guest arrived (and had arranged beforehand to put Attias up at his home). “I know what I like as a musician,” he explained the following day. “If I show up and people there act like they care, I feel a lot better. I think that even though I’m just there, Michael knows I’m there to support him. I don’t even need to say it. I just am. I feel that from the musician side as well. When that’s the case you play better. It’s just human nature.”

These days, Vandermark has three main outfits. Those seeking his more jazz-rooted work can look to Side A with drummer Chad Taylor and pianist Håvard Wiik. Continuing the electric vibe of groups like Free Music Ensemble, Powerhouse Sound and Frame Quartet, Made to Break toured the U.S. in April, concluding with a recording session in Chicago that will yield the band’s fifth release this fall. His ongoing duo with Nilssen-Love is also well documented.

There’s more. In addition to DEK, there’s Shelter with Wooley, Jasper Stadhouders, on bass and guitar, and drummer Steve Heather. Vandermark is a regular guest of the Dutch punk band the Ex, recording with them on their collaborations with the late Ethiopian saxophone legend Gétatchèw Mèkurya. He also performs with the band’s guitarists, Terrie Hessels and Andy Moor, in the aggressive improvisation band Lean Left.

Throughout his career Ken VandermarK has had a habit of dedicating his compositions on record to fellow musicians and other heroes. Those tributees he’s played with include Brötzmann and McPhee, the latter of whom he continually namechecks as a huge influence. There are also nods to jazz totems like Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins, and to the icons of the avant-garde who inspired one-off projects and the four volumes of Free Jazz Classics by the Vandermark 5.

Now in his 50s, he’s starting to think about how they did so much great work later in life. The Stone provided some ideas for him to work on, but answers come from elsewhere too. “[Pianist] John Tilbury was rehearsing with me in Oslo,” Vandermark began with a chuckle, “and during the breaks he was practicing these compositions that he was to perform the next day for a door gig at Café OTO in London. He’s in his 70s and he’s doing that. I’m looking at this and thinking, ‘Damn straight, man!’”

By Tad Hendrickson

Jazz Times, 6/16/16

Originally published