Courtesy of Ken Vandermark



Ken Vandermark has been compared to Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, and John Carter. Enough said. Between his collaborations with the AALY Trio, The Vandermark 5, DKV Trio, FJF, the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Octet/Tentet, the Joe Harriott Project, Steelwool Trio, his work with Joe McPhee and the Sound in Action Trio, if Vandermark is not one of the voices to bring this music into the twenty-first century, then you are welcome to make use of the feedback feature to write the I-told-you-so's. I was surprised he had any time to go one on one with me. So here he is, the man, the myth, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

KEN VANDERMARK: Well, I grew up in a household that was very much interested in music and in the arts in general. I saw a lot of concerts as a kid, mostly jazz concerts but some classical music and other things. So I kind of grew up hearing music at home and in concert. I was really interested in just seeing the stuff live and then like in fourth grade I started playing the trumpet and it was not very good. Then in high school, I switched to tenor and that seemed to solve some of the problems I was having with the trumpet. I started writing my own music actually pretty soon after that. So I just kind of got into it from being exposed to it at a young age. I took some public school lessons. I actually, the most important lessons I got on the sax were with George Garzone. I studied with him and had a few lessons over a couple summers when I was in college and he helped sort out a few things technically for me, which was really, really crucial. But aside from him, most of the stuff that I have been dealing with has been self-taught.

FJ: What were some of the shows that you were taking in?

KEN VANDERMARK: I remember seeing Johnny Griffin quite a bit and that really made a big impression on me. I remember seeing him when Kenny Washington was really young. God, he was like a young kid. And watching that and watching Griffin work with him had a lot of impact. I saw the Art Ensemble. I used to see Alan Dawson all the time, James Williams all the time. Most of the stuff I saw when I was younger was more mainstream. I saw Benny Goodman at Symphony Hall and all that kinds of stuff. But as I got older and into high school, I started seeing more experimental stuff, for lack of a better word. I used to go see this group, The Fringe, that still plays in Boston all the time with George Garzone, Bob Gullotti, and John Lockwood. They played every Wednesday night and I went with my father on a pretty regular basis to see that and that opened me up quite a bit to some things. And then by the time I got to college, I was like totally interested in pursuing, trying to find my own way through the music, primarily on the instigation of a recording by Joe McPhee called TENOR, which was a solo record of tenor saxophone music. And that really, really made an indelible mark on my psych and that inspired me to really open up towards what I was trying to find.

FJ: What was it about that record?

KEN VANDERMARK: Up to that point, I had been hearing like I said, I saw the Art Ensemble and I had just seen The Fringe and I was really intrigued by the music and I was kind of amazed at what they were doing with the instruments from a technical standpoint, getting to do things that were unconventional, but it wasn't always communicating with me on a more fundamental level, I guess. The McPhee stuff, when I heard that, my father played it for me. He got a copy of it in the mail and it was like an immediate reaction to it. He had, he was doing amazing things with circular breathing and multi-lines, technically unbelievable shit on the horn and also there was an amazing emotional content and melodic content that really communicated to me. It was like, OK, it's possible to make both of these things happen, this extreme expression, both technically and musically in a way that spoke directly to me. I saw that as being something that was, you could marry these things and it wasn't that it was all one thing or something else. And that has been something that I have been really interested in really since that point.

FJ: The media has a tendency to categorize and pigeonhole both the music and the artist, so in your own words, how would you describe your music?

KEN VANDERMARK: Well, it would depend a lot on what project. One of the things that I'm most interested in is diversity. That becomes problematic for the public, sometimes the public, but it definitely becomes problematic for writers because it seems that they don't accept or think it's possible to be legitimately interested in a wide range of music. That if you pursue something, you have to be selective otherwise you're not serious about it. Most of the musicians that I play with play a wide range of music and it's not unusual, so it's difficult to describe exactly what I do because it's like with Vandermark 5, there's a whole set of aesthetics that band works with that let's say the DKV Trio doesn't all the time. And then I've done like, I've been in a band for years until recently doing stuff like Booker T. and the MGs, instrumental funk stuff. It's kind of difficult to say, Fred, "This is the one thing I do." I think the one thing that I'm interested in is trying to explore the possibilities in music through improvisation. In some cases, all the music I play is completely improvised as it usually is with the DKV Trio, and in some cases it is utilizing compositions like with the Vandermark 5 to try to set up different territories for the players that might normally not be arrived at using other means. I tend to incorporate and with the musicians I play with I think this is true, the range of our backgrounds, in terms of what we've listened to, what we've seen, and the other things that we've done in terms of our playing. So a lot of times, we have some trouble with people who are mainstream jazz listeners because some of the rhythms we use may not swing in a conventional jazz sense, whatever that means because that's a whole (laughing) dissertation on what is swing. If you said "jazz" to someone and they think of Blue Note in the mid-50s or whatever, some of the stuff that we do doesn't incorporate those things. Some of the stuff incorporates quite a bit of the European developments that have happened since the '70s, people like Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Paul Lytton, Peter Brotzmann, and they are pushing the envelope in a different set of directions and that information has come back across the ocean and effected people from my generation and even older than me, people that have been really aware of stuff. It's become, from my standpoint, necessary to try to integrate all these different elements, rather than say, "Well, all I can do is play mainstream jazz." Because I think that is an incredibly artificial way of approaching playing music at this point because the things that have developed in mainstream jazz, the people like Art Blakey and Wayne Shorter in the early hard-bop years or whatever, and Charlie Parker previous to that, they all came out of a period where they were effected by the music they heard growing up. So bebop came out of this period before them and then they developed stuff. To play bebop now, I think is frankly impossible unless you try to recreate the melodic contours of the music that Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and others developed. If you don't do that then it doesn't sound like bebop. So to do that is a re-creative process as opposed to a procreative process let's say or an actively creative process. So I think sometimes music, jazz listeners have a problem with what we do because it's not so simply, "That swings," or "That sounds like a saxophone solo out of jazz thing." Suddenly, there maybe sections that are very directly inspired by guys like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler. That gets into a whole set of issues that maybe don't fall into the category or label of "jazz." Issues of category have become very problematic right now I think in terms of discussing the music, but that to me has always been the case, especially if you look at people like Duke Ellington, who from the beginning of their career were integrating all of the outside systems of information, going on tour, seeing things in different parts of the United States or different parts of the world, integrating those ideas into his band, so you're constantly seeing this, it was always identifiable as Ellington's group, but the band shifted and changed, not just because the members in the band changed, but because Ellington was constantly having this influx of information as well as Strayhorn in their collaborative years and everything. To me, I think, what I'm trying to do and I think the people that I work with are trying to do is do the same exact thing that Ellington did in a way, but with our own set of systems of information. We're living in a different time. I think that if Duke Ellington was born now, where he was, let's say, from my generation, the music that he would be writing would be radically different. Charlie Parker would not be playing bebop now. He'd be doing a different kind of music because he would have come out of a different time period and a different social situation and all those other things that effect what you play. In a longwinded way, Fred, it's pretty difficult to describe exactly what I'm trying to do because I'm not sure. I don't think that it's just one thing. I think that it's a diversity of things.

FJ: It may not be politically correct, but it's honest.


FJ: But is it frustrating that the music is stigmatized, you have to admit that there is a certain scarlet letter to playing "free" jazz.

KEN VANDERMARK: I think that's a really interesting point, Fred. I think that the stigma comes from certain attitudes based on again, a jazz mainstream perspective. Most of the people that I play to, in terms of the audience, and this is international at this point, this isn't just in Europe or just the United States, it's an international phenomenon, the audiences that we play to are around my age. They're like from their early twenties to their early forties, in that period, most of them. There are people who are a lot older that come out who are fanatics and if the younger people can get into the clubs, they come out too, but in general that's the group that we've played to. For them, the fact that what we do is outside of jazz convention, it doesn't matter to them and in fact, it's kind of a benefit. I've had countless people come up to me and say, "I hate jazz, but I really like what you do. I heard you were a jazz musician and I didn't want to come out, but this is great." What it is, Fred, is that they've seen really bad jazz. They have been exposed to really boring music, not that it's jazz even. For this group of people, the fact that we are outsiders to the jazz mainstream isn't a stigma at all. In fact, in some cases it brings people out to see that this is something potentially new, or different, or personal, or intense, or whatever. They want to see that and they don't really care that, I think that they are intrigued by the idea that there is a lot of improvisation, but I think that many of them don't even know who Anthony Braxton is, or know who Cecil Taylor is, or maybe have any Ornette Coleman records. But they're interested in music and it's a starting point for them to get into some other things. I think the stigma comes through, for example in Downbeat, the new issue of Downbeat, the most recent Vandermark 5 record (Simpatico, Atavistic 107) got reviewed and in general it got a really positive response and that's great, wonderful, nice, but one of the people that reviewed it (John McDonough), gave it a bad review and their response is connected to this stigma that I think you are referring to, Fred, where, "Oh, there's squealing horns and there's no form and this that and the other thing." I think what it is that from my standpoint, they are applying a set of preconceptions based on jazz conventions, which our music won't fit into, rather than listening to the music for what it's demanding on its own. So the stigma there is, "Oh, this is noise. This is unformed. This is not practiced. This is not thought about, unconsidered." And so that review to me, and frankly, I don't mind getting negative reviews if there is something interesting being said there or useful towards trying to help develop some ideas. This review was basically derived from, he has a stigma towards that kind of outside jazz and it has nothing to do with the merits of it or the lack of merits of it. It's just like if they hear a certain kind of sound, and the fact that there was electric guitar on some of it, they said, "Oh, this is crap." And that's, yeah, I would say from that part of the listening world, there is a stigma attached to what we do, but in general, I don't think that there is. Based on the audience that we play to, they're more interested in experimentation and new sounds so it's kind of a benefit.

FJ: It seems odd to think of any form of "jazz" as underground, but you are one of a handful of players that is really building a cult-like following and whose name is readily known to aficionados of the music, but not to the mainstream.

KEN VANDERMARK: I've definitely found, in the last few years, I done a lot more traveling. I've been really fortunate to do that. A bunch of that traveling has been in the United States and on each of the trips that I've done, I done like three or four, ten day, two week tours in the US, like driving tours, and each time the audience has been bigger, primarily through word of mouth, but also we've been able to get some coverage in some towns with the media and whatnot. It's been real gratifying in the most essential way to go to a city, play there and come back maybe a half a year later and have that audience larger because they're hungry to hear what you're doing. They're hungry to hear what this ensemble's going to do and they may not even know that much about it, but there is a willingness to take it on. Those are the people that I like to play to, where they come into the performance situation, the musicians come into the performance situation with the expectation that something good and exciting is going to happen, but there's also this very, very open-ended sense of, "We don't know what it is exactly going to be. Let's find out what it is tonight," and play with musicians who are willing to take a lot of risks and push themselves and not repeat what they did the night before, especially when you are on tour. That becomes a major component to the success of the music, to work with people who are constantly searching on their own. If you put them in a collective or an ensemble, then you've got a group that's always looking for something to try to do new, even if it's on material that they've been working on previously, but to find new things to say about that material. And I think, yeah, the audiences have been building through that work. In general, it is an underground music and in some ways, that's afforded us the freedom, let's say in Chicago, with the people that I'm working with most often, to develop our ideas and work on them on a regular basis in performance. I'm playing two or three nights a week doing this kind of music and that's how you find out what there is to do. By being able to work in this environment without, in some cases, without a lot of attention all the time has helped us. There has been a benefit to it in that we've been able to develop it. Now that we're bringing it out, we've really worked on a lot of these ideas. They've got some real personality and depth to them, I think. Whereas, if we'd been out six years ago, yeah, I think the music would have been cool, but it's being played on a higher level right now and it's the right time to be coming out. I think the audience response to it has verified that.

FJ: One of the certifications of your peers is to be recognized as being part of the downtown scene, why have you not ventured on Manhattan?

KEN VANDERMARK: I've been to New York a bunch of times. At this point, I've got some friends there and I have a decent sense of what's going on in terms of the scene there. Obviously, the people living there have a much better sense, but I think the benefit of being in Chicago, someone asked me a question similar to this a while back. He said, "Well, now that you have this reputation, why don't you move to New York and work with better players." And to be honest, Chicago is exactly where I should be. Even if I wasn't here, I'd want to come here to play with the musicians that I'm working with because there is a consistency and perspective on what makes interesting music with the people that I'm working with. In New York, I think that there are certain things that I'm really fascinated by that I don't know if I could get to them with the musicians that I'm aware of that are working there. So it's necessary for me to be here from the standpoint of developing the music that I want to play. And then from an economic standpoint, it's a lot cheaper to live here, so it's possible to take more risks in terms of performance situations. I play all the time in Chicago and from my standpoint, I need to be doing that to develop the music that I want to play. In New York in general, I think that the playing situation, there aren't as many per musician. There's lots of musicians in New York and they're all vying for a set number of possible gigs. Whereas, in Chicago, there's not as many players, there's a lot of great players here. There's no question about that, but there is not a lot in terms of numbers. And there is a lot of places to play. We're out doing it all the time. I think that that, based on the way I like to work, there is no place else in the world, at this point, that would be better for me to pursue the ideas that I am interested in and the musicians here, I couldn't find them any place else either, with their sense of time and their interest in integrating all those ideas that I was talking about earlier. Peter Brotzmann came to Chicago and put together a large group, which has been an ongoing project now for a couple of years. We just played the Berlin Jazz Festival and stuff. And he really has a passion for the musicians in Chicago because they know his music. We were aware of his aesthetics and ideas before he every came here to play here with us. That's because we love what he's doing. We've investigated and researched it on our own because it's been interesting for our own ideas. So when he came here, he's like, "Oh, my God. My music exists in Chicago." That's one of the great things about being in this town is this voracious appetite to pursue different ideas if they are inspiring and there's an openness to accepting other ideas whether they're from other players in town or outside the city and an interest in those ideas to see what the possibilities are. Whereas, I get the feeling in some other places, you have a certain set way of doing things and if you don't do it that way you're put down or if you don't go through certain channels, you're put down. And in general, the musicians here are incredibly supportive of each other. I'm not a hundred percent clear as to why that is but it is fantastic. So I don't really have an interest in going someplace else because, I mean, I got to play with Han Bennink the other night. I got to play with Peter Brotzmann the week before that. I'm going to play with Paul Lytton tomorrow. I'm getting to play with the musicians that I would love to play with and I've been able to, and that's just guys outside of town, never mind the musicians that are in town that I work with all the time like Kent Kessler and Tim Mulvenna and all the other guys. Being in Chicago has made it possible for me to play with these people. I don't know if I was in New York, if I could say that that would be the case.

FJ: Tim Mulvenna is a member of your Sound in Action Trio, the Trio has recently released Design in Time for the Delmark Records label.

KEN VANDERMARK: Right, I got a chance to see Robert Barry play a few years ago. He was with the Chicago Underground Orchestra, that's what they were called, Rob Mazurek's group and at that time Robert was playing drums in the band. I had a vague knowledge of him because I've got a lot of the early Sun Ra records that Robert was on. I was just totally blown out of the water when I saw him play. It was really, you don't have lots of times in your life where you see somebody that you don't know that much about who is so stunningly developed. He's a master musician. Usually, you hear about someone like that. You don't walk into a room all the time and have an experience like that. It had a lot of impact. I said to myself at that point that I've got to try to find a way to play with him because it is clear that I will get a lot from it. His whole approach to drums just comes out of a different time period. He's playing like some kind of a cross between Dennis Charles and Billy Higgins, the whole way he pays the ride cymbal, the whole way he grooves. It's a really different animal. You can't find people who play with that kind of feel now, unless they are from that generation. I tried some project, trio things with bass players and some other stuff and for whatever reason, I wasn't able to find something that sort of stuck in terms of the rhythm because he has a very spare way of playing, a really subtle way of playing where a lot of things are happening but he's not like really beating you over the head with them. It seemed like if the bass players were too active that they'd get in the way of what he was doing and if they were too straight forward, it would not, I don't know what, there was just problems with it, so I can't quite remember what caused me to think of doing it, but Tim Mulvenna, who I play with all the time and had been working with quite a bit up at that point, I thought, "What the heck, why don't we just put the two drummers together." Tim's a phenomenal, "A": musician and "B": he's really into the history of the instrument, so I thought he'd be into doing it and he was totally into it and we did a gig and I said, "Man, this is great." Playing with Tim brought out a lot of things in terms of Robert's playing. He really loved playing with Tim and still does and responded to working off another drummer and so he became a lot more active in terms of the kinds of ideas that he was throwing around. That was the instigation of doing it and when it arrived at the format with the two drummers, it seemed to really bring out good things in all of us. So I was like, "OK, let's pursue this." We did gigs and rehearsed and stuff for probably a year and a half, two years and then I approached Delmark about trying to document it. They seemed willing to do it. We went into the studio for a couple of days and rolled tape. I think we really captured what the band does. It was a great thing to do for me, to get a chance to document work with him, and then a musician with his experience. He's phenomenal. Someone should write a book about him because he's got the most amazing collection of stories concerning the history of the music that he has been involved in. He'd be an amazing interview. That's kind of where the music came out of and then picking the book, Thelonious Monk's music worked really well because of its rhythmic overtones and Ornette's music worked really well and then I tried to write some material for it. Of course, doing the Sun Ra stuff was a connection to Robert. Sun Ra was there and that seemed great. We'd pull these tunes out and he'd be like, "Oh, yeah, I remember when we played this back in 1958 or '57." It was really this great alive sense of history and future going on in the group. It's been a great experience. Actually, tonight, we've got the CD release concert for that record.

FJ: Another heavy among the underground is Mats Gustafsson, you have collaborated with him on occasion with the AALY Trio. You have a new release on Wobby Rail, Stumble.

KEN VANDERMARK: Yeah, yeah, Mats, I really think, is an example of someone who has taken the most powerful aspects of the European playing and distilled them down into his own style. His abilities to deal with the instrument are pretty awe inspiring and getting a chance to work with him in the AALY Trio, which is the on going project we have, it's kind of a free jazz type group. We play tunes and a lot the velocity of the band comes out of Cecil Taylor's music, Ornettte's music, Peter Brotzmann's music. A lot of the material has a real open feel rhythmically and what not. We're kind of in some ways, he's exactly the same age as me. We have a lot of similar interests musically and it's kind of weird that we know each other and that we play together because there are a lot of differences in what we do. I think that there is something unique that happens when the two of us are on stage together. He's brings things out in my playing and he pushes me in ways that I normally don't get pushed and I think that happens with him as well through the playing that I'm doing. I think the chemistry between us and in that group and in particular that quartet really creates something pretty special. It's a kind of unification between like an American perspective on improvised music and a very European perspective on music, improvised music and issues on time and written material and how that works together. It's a really great group. The fact that they are all in Sweden and I'm in Chicago has not really prevented us from doing a lot of work. We've got three records out. We've done a couple tours in the US and a couple of tours in Sweden. In March, we are going to be doing a European tour. We're doing a lot of work even though we are separated by an ocean. I think that happens because the band is really passionate about working together and finding out what we can do. It's a really special group. There's a lot of intensity in that band.

FJ: It's been interesting to hear your music progress these last couple of years and you have been fortunate enough to document a bulk of that material.

KEN VANDERMARK: It's weird, Fred, you make the records and for me, I kind of forget about them. It's like you do this work and it's really important to me to document things and not to document every time you cough. I'm sure there are people who think that is my interest, but if you have investigated something and developed it, yeah, it's important for me to make a document, because you see people like Herbie Nichols, who I think is one of the great composers, one of the great jazz piano players and there's like four CDs worth of material. They're honest statements about what I was playing at that point. It's a real accurate timeline of the development of the musicians that I was playing with. If someone is really interested about the music, they can see where it's from, where it is, and where it's going.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and Interview Specialist. Comments?  Email Fred.