photo by Marc PoKempner
FIRESIDE CHAT WITH KEN VANDERMARK
are leaders and there are followers. There are those that fight the good
fight in the arena and then there are those who are content to be merely
spectators. I cant imagine Ken Vandermark was ever a follower or
likely to be a spectator. After speaking to Vandermark on numerous occasions,
I have come away impressed by his sheer determination to create music
that is original, creative and beyond the traditional descriptions of
jazz writers. Perhaps that is the reason why when writers speak of Vandermark,
they take the easy way out and the first thing that they associate him
with are Eric Dolphy and his crew cut. Neither of those things have anything
to do with Vandermark and the grounds that he is hell bent on breaking
now and tomorrow. It is my pleasure to present an encore Fireside with
Vandermark as he sat down with the Roadshow after a lengthy tour. And
just so I have a clue, who let the dogs out?
FRED JUNG: With the number of recordings you have appeared on in the past
year, arent you concerned about overexposure?
KEN VANDERMARK: No, Im not worried about it because I think the
perspective that people have on what Im trying to do who feel that
way completely misunderstand what Im trying to do musically and
the nature of the kind of music that Im playing. If you want to
take models based on what I do, in terms of looking at history, look at
the kinds of recordings of say, not to put myself in the same musical
position as someone as Coleman Hawkins, in terms of importance, but I
build my work ethic on the stuff that he was doing in the Forties, with
performances and recordings. Look at the number of recordings a guy like
that is making. Hes in the studio playing with different people.
Hes working with the new bebop players. Hes recording with
people that are his peers that came up as the same time as him, guys like
Roy Eldridge or Dizzy Gillespie. He was in the studio all the time doing
stuff and performing all the time. I think the thing about the music that
I play is based on a process of development through improvisation and
the recordings are just indications of different things that are happening.
Theyre not ends. Theyre stepping points in a process. Considering
the different kinds of music of interest that Im working with and
the different kinds of players Im interested in working with, I
could see to an extent that there are a lot of records coming out this
year with my name on them. But I think if you take each individual recording
and look at what it is and compare it to the other things that are happening
and compare it to the other things that I have done, from my standpoint,
they are all radically different. So I feel like a recording with Paul
Lytton is radically different than a recording with The Vandermark 5,
which is radically different than a recording with Peter Brotzmann. So
if people who feel that Im overexposed have a problem with the number
of recordings that are coming out, they just dont understand at
all what Im trying to do and thats fine. But I dont
think that they really perceive what improvised music is about. I would
argue that what is the right number of records to put out a year? Whats
the right number of concerts to do a year? How much is possible? And if
you think that only one record is permissible per year and it could possibly
be good, why one? Why not none? It is like perceiving recording, whether
it is a live recording or studio recording, recording as the goal and
recordings arent the goal as far as Im concerned. Recordings
are indications of whats happening and if you think it is too many
records, dont buy them. A record costs, with the labels I work with,
twelve to fifteen bucks and how many movies do you see a year? How many
meals do you eat a year? I think that complaint is a misunderstanding
of what Im trying to do.
FJ: What is it that you are trying to do?
KEN VANDERMARK: Im really curious. Im very interested in whats
possible to do with the music and the history of music and so my whole
thing is to try to pursue as many avenues as possible, to work with as
many different people as possible, to play as often as possible, and to
find out whats out there and whats potentially in me to hopefully
contribute to the music thats going on now. Im just trying
to examine whats happened and try to apply whatever knowledge or
understanding of whats happened to what may happen or what may come
up. Thats why Im interested in playing with as many different
kinds of people as possible. If you look at the people that Ive
worked with and who I hopefully with continue to work with, you have a
range of people from people in the generation of Fred Anderson and Robert
Barry, who are nearly seventy, to the generation of Peter Brotzmann or
Paul Lytton, European players, American players, unfortunately, I havent
really worked with any Japanese players or people from Asia. There are
so many things to possibly do that the way that I learn is by directly
working with individuals whose work I like and learning from that process.
I guess, in terms of a goal, its just to continue doing those things.
What do you get out of playing with Misha Mengelberg? What do you get
out of playing with Hamid Drake? What do you get out of playing with Kent
Kessler and Tim Mulvenna? Theyre all different people. They have
all different histories. You walk away from those situations learning
more than you can even assess at the time of doing them. My whole process
has been about doing as much as possible because thats how I learn.
It may not be how other people learn, but thats how I have to do
FJ: Do you find that the more you are learning, the more that knowledge
sparks your curiosity?
KEN VANDERMARK: Yeah, definitely, definitely. You think you know something
(laughing) and then you find out that you really dont know that
much and you have to go back. A perfect example is the tour with Brotzmann
and Brotzmanns Tentet in the United States with adding William Parker
and Roy Campbell to his group. Just to take Peter for example. Every single
night that we played, and I think there was nine gigs in two weeks, plus
two days in the studio, I got to hear Peter Brotzmann play every single
night. And every single night, he kicked my ass so hard musically and
there was a piece that he wrote that we worked on called Stone/Water
and in that piece, towards the end of it, there is a section where Jeb
Bishop plays an improvisational section and then Ive got to play
an improvisational section and then Peter plays after me and I had to
do that nine concerts plus the studio recording of it. And everyday, I
knew that he was going to take this solo after me and everyday, I would
do everything that I could possibly think of to do something that would
not make me look pale in comparison. And everyday, he came in and he just
destroyed me. It wasnt a competitive thing, but it was like an understanding
that he is playing on such a level with so much energy and creativity,
it was just like he was knocking me all over the block. That pushed my
playing through the roof. I came off that trip with all this other stuff
that I didnt have before. Playing with people like that forces you
to find things. It forces me to ask questions like, What am I going
to do tonight to not look like a fool? It pushes your curiosity
through the roof more.
FJ: Playing with Brotzmann must be like being on the on deck circle while
McGwire is batting.
KEN VANDERMARK: Yeah, it is an almost impossible task. It is a priceless
FJ: Lets touch on the Witches and Devils project you have contributed
KEN VANDERMARK: Thats a project that Mars Williams has put together
and hes the leader of the group. Weve been playing together
for about four years or so. He was real interested in exploring the music
of Albert Ayler and I think initially, it was to do a concert or two and
the group worked really well. Everybody in the group was very interested
in pursuing it and seeing it where it would go. Albert Ayler is an amazing
composer and hes really overlooked as a composer, frankly. He had
a lot of interesting ideas about material. A lot of that came out of actually
trying to play this stuff and finding out how different mechanisms in
his work functioned. Initially, I was a little bit concerned that I didnt
want to be are paratory band, even if it is Albert Ayler. Very quickly,
it was clear that we would try as a group, to take the thematic material
of Ayler and keep the spirit of it and the improvisation, but try to find
our own thing with it. It is very connected to Aylers work, obviously,
but I think were trying to find out what our voices would be in
that aesthetic and that is what has kept the group going. Weve been
able to develop that and see what other things are possible with it and
go some place else with it. I consider myself as a sideman in that group.
It is Mars concept, his direction, and the way he works the band
live. It is very much in his vision of what to try to do with the material.
Its really great because I get to come in and contribute to that,
but I dont have to worry about being a leader for a change.
FJ: And the Spaceways Incorporated project?
KEN VANDERMARK: That came out of a concert I did quite a while back. I
did a duo concert in Chicago doing the music of Sun Ra and George Clinton.
John Corbett suggested doing something like that with Hamid Drake in Chicago
in connection with a concert that was happening to celebrate the fact
that the Empty Bottle series was three years old and there was going to
be a big party with a lot of musicians playing at it. He wanted to have
some kind of music that would be celebratory. I said that if we were going
to do this music then I want to get something electric in on it, particularly
on the Funkadelic stuff because that is such stuff because that is such
an intricate part to that music and my friend Nate McBride, who is a bass
player, is one of the few upright bass players that I know who actually
really likes to play electric bass too and he is an amazing electric player
and so I suggested bringing him in. That is how it turned into a trio.
We did the concert and it was really, really successful. We only played
Funkadelic music at the concert and then John suggested doing this recording
for Atavistic of going back and adding Sun Ra stuff to it and doing a
bunch of different material. Funkadelic music and Sun Ras music,
I love it. It kind of surprisingly works in a very interesting way by
playing both those musics together. There is a loose connection with their
interests in space so to speak and the aesthetics connected to getting
off the planet and finding something better. There is something really
nice of moving back and forth from the creative acoustic world of Sun
Ra and the creative electric world of George Clinton and Funkadelic. It
was fabulous. It was really incredible.
FJ: Doing a waxed overview of the projects that you have chosen to be
a part of, they are of composers that have gone unheard, Joe Harriott,
Sun Ra, and Albert Ayler. Why didnt you just take the conventional
route and do an Ellington or Gershwin songbook?
KEN VANDERMARK: My feeling is, in the case of both those composers, that
the music that they are working out of comes out of a tonal background.
They are dealing with primarily chordal situations and thats not
really where my ears lie. Im not going to be a great chord changes
player. Im just not really interested in doing that. The way I hear
music, Im really coming out of a post-Ornette thing. The music of
Joe Harriott is really connected to starting to look that direction. Yeah,
he had a piano player in the group and stuff like that, but he was also
moving very rapidly towards something else that transcended tonal conventions
I think. Sun Ra, obviously, his early stuff is chordally based, but it
also moved very quickly outside that. Obviously, is later music was much
more sound oriented. Ayler, obviously, decimated basic tonality and was
moving towards the sound concept and those are people whose work really
hasnt been examined outside of the primary composers. In the case
of Duke Ellington, whether it was his sidemen or other players, Thelonious
Monk or whatever, there were a lot of people who have looked at his music
and done other versions of those compositions and certainly, the same
thing is true with Gershwin. I dont think that Im going to
add something to that history, performance or recording wise. If I am
going to do something like that, they are going to be composers who I
have a direct affinity for. I cant imagine doing something with
Ellington that could be more interesting than what he did. I cant
really articulate how important I think he is now and was when he was
alive. Thelonious Monk, for example, is a starting point for me for a
lot of the things that I am interested in musically. His move towards
melodic interests versus more harmonically rooted interests in terms of
improvisation, his emphasis on the melody when he was accompanying people.
Charlie Rouse talked about how he was never told the chord changes on
the tunes, that Monk would teach him on the piano, just the melody lines.
That is the beginning of the motion towards Ornettes whole thing,
with dont play the background, play the foreground and his emphasis
on the melody. So I am very interested in Monks music and I work
on that. Ive done some recordings and performances of Monks
music, but that is kind of where it begins for me in terms of what Im
interested in doing, whether its my music or a composers. Those
types of writers are who I find interesting and also, people who have
been overlooked. If I am going to do someones work, I would rather
do Eric Dolphy than another version of Autumn Leaves.
FJ: Will you do an Eric Dolphy record?
KEN VANDERMARK: Yeah, actually, there is a record coming out in August
by The Vandermark 5, the new record and the first thousand copies of that
record has an extradisc in it, which is arrangements I did of a bunch
of composers that I like. There is one Sun Ra tune, but there is a piece
by Cecil Taylor, a piece by Eric Dolphy, Joe McPhee, Anthony Braxton,
and then a couple of other people. Yeah, Dolphy is obviously somebody
who Ive got a lot of affinity for. Ive done some concerts
of his music. Im not overly interested in doing tons of Ken Vandermark
does the music of so and so. It is just that the projects have come up
in a loose sort of way. The Ayler thing isnt even my project. It
is Mars project. The Harriott thing was a concert that turned into
a recording project and the same thing is true with the Spaceways thing.
FJ: Lets talk about the Empty Bottle series and its impact on the
KEN VANDERMARK: It is really hard for me to be objective on that because
I am involved with booking it. Im too attached to it. Im sure
plenty of people feel I am overly self-promotional as it is. That wouldbe
a little bit unfortunate for me to give them even more ammunition (laughing).
I would have to say though, Fred, even trying to be objective about it,
that for me, personally, I wont even talk about Chicago, but for
me, personally, it has been essential to my development. Getting to see
the kinds of musicians that come through there, all the work that John
Corbetts done to bring people from outside Chicago and from Europe
into that series, it has totally changed my playing. The chance to hear
these people and in some cases play with them has opened up a whole new
perspective I have towards the music. The fact that the series is now
into its fourth year, I cant even count how many concerts that is.
Bringing that music into a city and a city, its going to totally
bring in a bunch of energy, creative energy and I think it has affected
the scene here. I think the combination of the festivals and the series
has indicated what is happening right now through at least what Johns
perspective is and my perspective is. Yeah, there is a lot of people that
weve tried to book in there that havent worked out or we just
havent been able to do it. There are people we are not aware of
that havent played there yet. It is not like it is the perfect series
and there is nothing else left to do. Weve tried to be as open-minded
as possible, but we also do the series for free. Were not paid to
do it. Over the course of doing it, I dont even think we have begun
to pay for our phone calls on concerts that we have done that have actually
made enough profit that we could get paid after the musicians. So, yeah,
there is a selfish perspective to be brutal about the music we want to
hear. We want to hear this music and those are the people we are bringing
in. I think there is some grossing about how we dont have so and
so in and in general, we are bringing in people who we like and who we
respect and whose music we want to get heard. We try to be open about
it as possible. I think that it has been a really positive thing. I would
like to think that it has been an incredibly positive thing for the citys
music as well.
FJ: Chicago seems to be the hub right now for advanced improvised music.
Everyone seems to acknowledge that but this country. What are they putting
in the water in Chicago?
KEN VANDERMARK: Well, I think that there are a lot of different factors
that have coalesced at the same time. I dont think that there is
any way that you could have anticipated it. A lot of things happened at
once, somewhat by chance and somewhat motivated by forces. The situation
there is kind of unique. One thing is that Chicago has been a little bit
isolated. It is not on the East Coast. There is a lot of cities collected
in a very small area around New York in the East Coast. There is a very
high awareness of whats going on in New York because of that proximity.
Chicago is hundreds of miles away. There are cities around here, but there
isnt a very active improvised music scene in those cities. It is
like Chicago is an isolated thing. It is between the East Coast and the
West Coast. I think a lot of the players here have developed an interest
in whats happening outside of Chicago, an awareness either through
recordings or seeing people play. Before the Empty Bottle series started,
there was an awareness of what was happening in Europe just out of necessityand
curiosity. It just seems like a lotof people here have good record collections.
Now that there is more players coming through town, a lot of musicians
here go out and check out who is coming through town to play. They are
aware of what is happening here. There is an awareness of what is happening
outside of here. I think that is true in other cities too, but that awareness
has led people like Brotzmann, when they come here, all of the sudden,
there are musicians who have been influenced by his work, know his work,
and want to work with him with a lot of enthusiasm and energy. He responds
to that. That is true of a guy like Paul Lytton and other players too.
There is already a camp of people, listeners and musicians, who are very
enthusiastic about them even before they set foot in the city. There is
a lot of people programming music, recording music, writing about the
music, who are all about the same age. They are people in their mid-thirties.
Okka Disk is run by someone in their thirties. Atavistic is run by someone
in their thirties. Writers like Corbett and other people, they are in
their thirties. I am in my thirties. We have all been working on these
ideas about music and we have all come to a similar point in our careers,
where we are able to work and actively affect what is going on and we
are all around the same age. So there is a certain peer group that is
involved in the scene here. There is people writing about it. The stuff
gets played on college radio. There is concerts happening. There is places
to play. There are more places to play and do this kind of music in Chicago
per capita musicians than in New York. There is more musicians in New
York and probably not more places to play to keep up with that. So there
is less harsh competition between musicians to get work. It is not as
expensive to live here as in San Francisco or New York or Boston, so economics
are a little bit easier to deal with. So there are a lot of factors going
into having a more healthier environment. There is a lot of curiosity.
There is a lot of awareness of what each other is doing and respect for
what each other is doing. There is a very inclusive and non-boundary oriented
perspective. I saw something where Rob Mazurek was talking about a willingness
to record with his group one day and a pop project the next day because
it is all interesting to him. If the music is interesting then do it.
All that openness has created a very creative environment right now. You
cant anticipate how that is going to happen and for some reason,
all those things have come together and the scene has sustained itself,
in terms of its activity, for a very long time now. I would say the last
five years, I am playing all the time in Chicago. Ive been playing
like two to three times a week doing the kind of music I play, not doing
weddings and not doing anything else but the kind of music I want to play.
Lately, things have escalated so I am out of town more now because I am
touring a lot more, but when I come back home, I played Tuesday night
and there was like a hundred and forty people there. Its like I
dont know whats going on here. The audience is amazing. They
have seen a ton of music. They are very exposed to a lot of different
ideas. They are educated about a lot of different things. Theyve
got a curiosity. I dont know what it is. When you describe it, it
sounds like you are making stuff up. It sounds like you are exaggerating
and Im not. It is a fantastic place to be right now. People who
are not here and who havent been here and havent spent a couple
of years here think that you are just plugging Chicago because you want
to create like this whole horseshit about creating our own self-propaganda.
Its like come and spend some time here. I can take any two weeks
and in one week period, I think like Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron, Fred Van
Hove, Peter Brotzmann, Joe McPhee, Barre Phillips, Joe Maneri, Mat Maneri,
all played in one week and that is a typical week. It may be a little
bit extreme than average, but that happens all the time. Never mind, all
the stuff that is happening in town with local Chicago musicians. It is
an amazing environment.
FJ: There is a tendency of writers when they are referring to you to address
two things, Eric Dolphy comparisons and your haircut.
KEN VANDERMARK: (Laughing) Yeah, well, the Dolphy thing, there is no question
that Dolphy has had a profound affect on my interest in music. The first
time that I heard Dolphy, I wentout and got a bass clarinet as soon as
I could afford it. I play the bass clarinet because of Dolphy. His interest
in angular lines, his rhythmic interval approach, totally has not really
been examined enough. There is a lot of implications in what hes
doing musically. Yeah, I am interested in exploring those implications
and hopefully, I have got my own stamp on it in a way that makes it more
mine or moving towards mine. There is no question that Dolphy has had
an amazing impact on me. His writing and his composing has had a huge
impact on me. Out to Lunch is one of my ten favorite records. I think
it is one of the greatest documents of improvised music that I have heard.
I cant make any argument against that. Youve got me. Dolphy
is a big influence. In terms of my haircut, I dont understand what
is so interesting about these kinds of things. I think what happens is
that people try, in writing, want to try to project who is the person
behind the music, like personality profiles. I have a flattop. I guess
people dont have many flattops now (laughing), so that is something
that is different. Maybe Han Bennink gets that all the time. I dont
know. I dont have anything interesting to say about it because I
dont think it is really that interesting. I just think that I look
a little bit different than some of the other people playing improvised
music now. In Norway, everybody there has got a shaved head, shorter than
me. Im not really sure what the interest is there. To me, the thing
that is interesting about music is music. I think there is plenty to write
about. There is plenty to talk about. There is plenty to argue about totally
related to the music. It is utterly fascinating. I spend all day long,
everyday, to the pointof driving people that I know crazy dealing with
issues that are related to music. I think people in the media have a difficult
job. I wouldnt want to write about music. It is very complicated
to articulate in words what happens with sound. They are two totally different
mediums. They are two totally different ways of trying to communicate.
It is a thankless, difficult task, but if you are going to write about
it, write about music. I think it is easier to write about sociology and
personality profiles to create these tensions that dont exist between
musicians. Ive been seeing it more and more now, this Chicago versus
New York horseshit. It just doesnt exist. I was just on the road
with Roy Campbell and William Parker. They are great people. It was a
pleasure to play with them. We got along and we played great music together.
They are from New York. As a Chicago player, I play in New York as often
as I can when I am on tour. People say why I dont I play in New
York more and do I have something against New York and it is like, I have
got to get to New York. It is not around the corner. It is like if I drive
straight through, it is like a twenty hour drive. So what they do is create
these things that dont exist to try to have something sensational
to write about. I dont know if editors push them to do that. I dont
know where it comes from, but I think it is much interesting to write
about musically, what is maybe different about William Parker and Kent
Kessler. It is just crazy. The music is interesting. That is why the people
in the media got into it in the first place. So lets write about
music. Lets discuss music. Why write about haircuts (laughing)?
If you have got such limited space to write about what they are interested
in, why devote sentences to what shirt I wear or what haircut I have?
Even if you dont like what I do, to write about that is taking away
space to complain about what I do. It makes no sense to me. That is my
response to the haircut.
FJ: People should keep their eye on the ball.
KEN VANDERMARK: Right.
Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and is in a minimum security
prision. Comments? Email Fred.