Interview with Citizen Jazz



My thanks to Franpi Barriaux for the in-depth interview, and to Citizen Jazz for publishing the piece.  Here’s a link to the issue for friends and fans who can speak French.  For those that can’t, I’ve put the original answers and questions in English below.

1/ Ken, your name is often associated with the city of Chicago, which you represent vigorously, even though you are from Boston. What is special about this city for you?

In the two decades since I moved to Chicago from Boston in 1989 the improvised music scene has developed a new infrastructure for performing.  At this point, there are more than two weekly series on almost every night of the week, plus the daily programming of Constellation.  The opportunity to develop work on a regular basis within that city is completely unique.

During the 1990s the music scene in Chicago was very open, with a lot of cross-pollination between the improvisers, rock musicians, noise musicians, etc.  Right now, with the new generation of players in their mid 20s, there is a resurgence of deconstructing “categories,” and a fresh intensity of collaboration between players from different parts of the scene.  This is really inspiring, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

2/Do you have the feeling, especially with your Vandermark 5 orchestra, that you have pushed the limits of improvisation? How important have artists like Jeb Bishop or Kent Kessler been to your development?

With the Vandermark 5, I believe what I pushed was the boundary around composing for improvisers.  I’m not suggesting that I was the only one to do so, but I was very conscious of pushing against the “head-solos-head” format that has existed through much of the history of jazz because I wanted to see what improvisers would do if faced with different constructions and structures.  This lead to the “narrative form” that the V5 used throughout its history.  Since then I have remained focused on exploring new avenues for compositional structures, most recently with Made To Break and Marker, where the form itself is spontaneous.  The end result, of course, is that this should impact the musicians and get them to improvise differently.

Musicians like Kent Kessler and Jeb Bishop have been essential to my development as a player and as a composer, there is no question regarding this.

3/In 2011, you recorded a solo, Mark in The Water, where you use most of the reeds and dedicate each piece to artists like Dolphy, Braxton or Giuffre? Are they your models?

When I recorded Mark in the Water I was thinking very hard about predecessors who had documented solo music.  Of course Braxton and Brötzmann are quite well known for their contributions to this format, but there is a lot of history there- from Dolphy, Coleman Hawkins, Giuffre.  And yes, they all have had profound impact on my ideas and my attitude toward what it means to deal with this way of playing music.

4/ Is it a tradition, as most of the songs in your Resonance Ensemble are dedicated to artists, like Michael Haneke in Head Above Water Feet Out of The Fire? Why are these references important?

I’ve been dedicating my compositions to other musicians and artists that have impacted me since the beginning.  It’s not that the pieces are supposed to be “portraits” of the individuals, or to try and recreate their musical aesthetics.  The idea is to acknowledge the people who have influence and inspired me and, with these references to indicate how their impact has altered my thinking and my creative path.

5/ What is your relationship to images and cinema? In Double Arc, another Resonance album, we have the feeling of a perpetual field/counterfield? And New Industries of the quintet Marker, which owes a lot to the French director Chris Marker, the feeling of Travelling, camera on the shoulder is also very present here! Is this a way of creating, especially movement?

Yes, my interest in the cinema has definitely had a profound impact on the way I think about composing music for improvisers.  Though I listen to and study different kinds of music all the time (not only jazz and improvised music, just as often contemporary composed music, post-punk rock, dub from Jamaica, funk, music from Ethiopia and other countries in African, various periods of music from Brazil…), I am so close to this field of endeavor as a practitioner it has been helpful to use resources and research outside of music to help me develop new approaches to my compositional work.  Filmmakers have made key impact on me.

Chris Marker is one of my favorite artists, and his development of the essay film is an inspiration for me- a new form that can include documentary footage, fictional narrative, and ideas, and which necessitated the innovation of new filmic structures.  In a sense, knowing about Marker’s work freed me up to to include different kinds of compositional strategies within the construction of a single piece.  To do so meant that, like for him, I needed to find a new architecture other than the “head-solos-head” format traditionally used in the 20th century history for much of the writing for improvisers.  In the case of the music for Marker, the organizational strategy was most influenced by Bresson and his idea that an image arrived at from ten different directions would give that same image ten different meanings.

6/ With Resonance Ensemble, as with Rara Avis, you integrate many European improvisers. Is the transatlantic dialogue important? How did you meet Istvàn Grencsò?

The opportunity to work with so many musicians from Europe has been essential to my creative development.  This started in full with the editions of the  Territory Band, which ran from 2000 to 2006 and recorded six albums.  But that period of course overlapped with the work with Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, which in turn overlapped with the Resonance Ensemble.  And these bands mentioned are only the large ensembles- the AALY project was really the first full scale collaboration I had with European musicians, and that started in 1996.  It’s a thread of collaborative activity that continues today with groups like Made To Break and Shelter.  I’m not sure why, but right from the beginning I felt a strong creative rapport with many of the musicians I met in Europe, to their approach to thinking about and working with different kinds of improvisation and composition.

Last year, Istvàn Grencsò contacted me about doing a project with his collective of Hungarian musicians based in Budapest.  It was an outstanding experience, a real collaboration from a compositional standpoint (both István and I wrote material for the band) and from a performance standpoint.  In addition, I learned a lot about the history of avant-garde improvised music in that country (especially the significance of pianist, György Szaboados) and the importance of the East German improvised music scene for the cutting edge musicians in Hungary.

7/ With Marker, one of your last albums, you record with young musicians from Chicago, an album with a power increase close to rock. What are the gender boundaries for you?

Do you mean genre boundaries or gender boundaries?  In either case, there are none for me.  Perhaps categories can be useful to help start a cultural discussion, but they can also generate dividing lines between ideas and people if they are given too much credence.

I’m always trying to write the music I want to hear, and this means that it will incorporate all the sources of music (and outside influences that are useful, such as cinema) that I explore to in an attempt to build new frameworks for composing for improvisers.  In the case of writing for Marker, with the two guitars and keyboard, it was a chance to explore my interests in rock, funk, and Tropicalia; alongside my interests in the music of Mauricio Kagel and Ennio Morricone.

8/ How did the Marker project come about? Does it mark a turning point in your musical approach?

After a period where I was doing less work with Chicago-based musicians, I started hearing a generation of players that were working in multiple fields of music (improvised, new composition, rock, noise) who had an attitude that reminded me of the period in the 90s when musicians from different fields were collaborating all the time in this city.  They also happened to be much younger than me.  After spending a couple of years going to concerts when I was home and listening to a wide range of musicians, and after being invited on a tour with The Few (which includes Steve Marquette and Macie Stewart, both of whom are in Marker), I realized that I could organize a band that forced me to use an instrumentation that was far away from what has become a new-jazz convention of horns, bass, and drums.  And though I love the bass, both electric and acoustic, I forced myself not to include that instrument in the Marker lineup.

With two very different guitarists (Andrew Clinkman and Steve Marquette), keyboards, violin, (Macie Stewart) and drums (Phil Sudderberg), along with my assortment of reed instruments, I realized I could write for an ensemble that could cover lots of aesthetic territory and which would compel me to write in different ways.  In addition, because the group is based in Chicago it has enabled me to work intensively with the band to develop a special set of methods for integrating the compositional elements with multiple kinds of improvising.  It’s a system which allows me to really create an environment that Bresson described- one that creates new routes to specific material, indicating changes in the meaning of that material and the improvisations leading to and moving away from the written parts.

9/ In New Industries, explain to you that there is a live and a studio because the situation of artists today forces you to organize yourself in the moment. Is it a constraint or a new way of looking at music?

Because all the music I play- whether completely improvised or dealing with pre-organized/composed materials- is meant to be different at every performance, it is a struggle to sometimes convey this to audiences that can only hear a band on a single occasion or from single recordings.  This is why- especially with Marker, where the composed elements can be so radically restructured- it is useful to present more than one version of the material, thereby enabling audiences the possibility to directly understand how the music works through listening to more than one document of it.

10/ At the same time, in your important discography, we recently had a duet with Nate Wooley, in an almost contemporary approach. The same is true of Terrie Ex and Joe McPhee. Are these face-to-face meetings essential?

The ongoing work with Nate Wooley, both in the duo project and otherwise, has been one of the most important of my newer collaborations.  The same is true with my duo work with Terrie Ex.  Their approaches to playing are radically different from each other, but the level of challenge and excitement when working with them is equivalent.  Through my association with Nate I keep learning more about contemporary composed music, different ideas about jazz history, and the intensity of “cleaning the slate” before each improvised performance.  Terrie has given me incredible opportunities with The Ex, and also work with Ethiopian musicians (particularly Getachew Mekuria), and in Lean Left (with Paal Nilssen-Love [another of my most essential creative partners] and Andy Moor), but I have to say that the territory Terrie and I explore in our duo pushes me to edge of my resources and forces me to continually come up with new solutions to the creative challenges he presents me.  As you suggest, these meetings are essential.

The music of Joe McPhee presented the epiphany that set me on a path I have been on since I was 17.  I’ve been beyond fortunate to work with him over many years (most recently, a few days ago in Peitz, Germany, with John Edwards, Klaus Kugel, and Fred Lonberg-Holm).  Joe is a constant source of inspiration, a role model as an artist and human being.  After the concert the other day, which was performed under challenging conditions, I told him how impressed I was that the band was able to create such a strong performance together.  He said, “Music provides its own rationale.”  That’s about a clear a statement regarding the work we do as any I can think of.

11/ What are Ken Vandermark’s future desires?

To keep playing, to keep touring, to keep composing, to keep collaborating, to keep learning- to never stop.