A Fireside Chat with The Vandermark 5
“ The issue is, is music going to survive. That's the thing I'm concerned about. The music has to function and has to speak to people. ”
Although The Vandermark 5 bears his name, Ken Vandermark is practical enough to realize V5's success should be credited to members Jeb Bishop, Tim Daisy, Kent Kessler, and Dave Rempis. For it is their commitment and loyalty that allows V5 to be a seasoned quintet unlike any other in modern music. V5's popularity obscures musical genres, cultural boundaries, political divides, country borders, limits of age, to command consideration from post-Cold War Yugoslavia to the bright lights, big city of Chicago. Yet debate continues among critical and elite circles of V5's "jazz" worth. The iconic Albert Ayler's responded to knee-jerk reaction to his approach, "It's a new truth now. And there have to be new ways of expressing that truth. I believe music can change people. Our music should be able to remove frustration, to enable people to act more freely, to think more freely." And perhaps that is V5's (unedited and in their own words) progressing legacy, not as free jazz, but as freedom, an idea that has become as cryptic as the word "jazz."
All About Jazz: Being the last man on an already formidable deal team is imposing.
Tim Daisy: When I was asked to join the band, I pretty much knew that I wanted to do it. I was really interested in what they were doing and I had already formed working relationships with some of the members of the band already, particularly Dave Rempis.
AAJ: V5 is a touring band. There isn't much of a learning curve.
Jeb Bishop: I've done more gigs with this band than any other. It has been the main place where I have been able to develop my approach to trombone playing in the last eight years. It has had a lot to do with my evolution as a player.
TD: Yeah, it's a challenge. It is amazing. It's a great opportunity and I don't take it for granted. We play night after night and I just try to step up to the challenge and hopefully, come out successful.
Dave Rempis: It is interesting. Just as a band, getting to play together that regularly, we really have an opportunity to get familiar with each other's playing and get familiar with the music that we're trying to deal with. That allows us to explore the compositions more fully.
Ken Vandermark: The willingness of the guys in the group to deal with the demands I make on them. The band works a lot and we work hard. We tour and rehearse constantly. I am always bringing new material into the group that they have to learn and execute.
AAJ: No one is getting rich doing this. V5 sacrifices monetary gains to play nightly.
JB: We're able to get beyond executing the material and to where we're doing something interesting with it.
TD: Being the youngest in the band, I am doing what I've always wanted to do. It is not really an issue for me because while we're certainly not getting rich, I am able to pay rent. I am able to pay bills and I couldn't ask for anything more than that because I am doing what I love to do.
DR: It is one of the things Ken is going for with the band, sort of an older model of regular work. The thing that made so many of those bands great, whether it is the Miles quintet, or the Ellington band, or Ornette's group, is just that they were playing together every night. Coltrane and Monk playing six months in a row at the Five Spot, that leads to something when you have that much time to work and push through various lulls that you hit. It brings new things to light. That is the model Ken is going for with this band, to really be a working band. Our mission is to play regularly and sometimes that means we're not getting paid as much to do it.
KV: For me, it is very clear even on nights that I am not completely happy with the way I've performed or played, that that's what I am supposed to be doing. The thing I get back from working with The Vandermark 5 is the opportunity to explore on a regular basis what it means to be an improvising musician right now and face that challenge in front of an audience with fantastic musicians, who are willing to collaborate and work together. That is a privilege. We sacrifice a lot. It's hard work. There is an immense amount of sacrifice on the physical and mental drain of traveling. When I am on stage playing, I don't feel as though I'm not getting anything back. That is why it is really crucial to be out on the road or performing in Chicago for me because it is a feedback relationship with the audience. We're putting out these ideas and we're playing this music and the feedback that we get, the connection that we have with the audience, that's really the process how all the creative stuff is going to work. We can rehearse as much as we want and I can write as many compositions as I want, but it doesn't matter until we're in front of an audience, wrestling with what the issues are of a particular piece, on a particular night. That, for me, is the whole thing.
AAJ: So it is remains fresh?
JB: Ken is so prolific and he rotates stuff through the book so quickly and he is always finding new approaches to how he writes for the group that it stays interesting for me.
TD: Strong compositions, strong arrangements, and everyone's attitude in the band, particularly, the fact that the level of communication is extremely high in the group. Ken writes all the arrangements and the pieces, but he is completely open for suggestions from anyone in the group. That is really what keeps it together. There are no hidden frustrations. That's what makes it a really healthy relationship and very successful, the fact that there is this very high level of communication among all the members of the group.
DR: Ken's an extremely open-minded person and draws on the people in the band. I think what makes the band work is that he is very much interested in having it as a collaborative.
KV: I present the group with new material. We don't sit in the past book of the group. This year alone, I wrote arrangements for nearly a dozen compositions by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, which will be included in the first pressing of the new album, which comes out in June. I've written new compositions that we're working on the tour that we will be doing in June in the States and Canada to support the album when it comes out, working towards the next album, which we will record in July. It is unbelievably fortunate to have four other people who are willing to do that much work over so many years and on such a consistent basis. We're able to do things in performance that a lot of bands can't do, not because they're not technically capable, but just because of the time factor. We play together all the time. With The Vandermark 5, we're able to circumvent fundamental communication issues because we're rehearsing, doing a tour, or playing a concert on an ongoing basis. Not many bands playing the kind of music we're working with have that kind of privilege. We're aware of that, so we're really trying to seize the opportunity and do something with it.
AAJ: Do you foresee an end?
JB: No, one thing that has kept it interesting is Ken is actively searching for new ways to approach writing. It is clear that he is trying new things out and new things to explore.
TD: I don't right now, absolutely not. If we continue to work like this, at a really open level, I don't see what anything like this would stop. We're playing a lot. We're having a lot of fun. Ken keeps challenging us and we're just doing it. It's a wonderful opportunity to be involved in.
KV: Right now, I feel like we're in a creative peak. I hear a lot more music I can write for the group and a lot more music that the band can get to. The issue is the commitment from the members of the group and so far, the enthusiasm from the people in the group has been fantastic. And as long as that remains, I don't fore see a period where the group can't continue to be creative and find new stuff to do. I'm very committed to it. I just hope that the rest of the guys are too.
AAJ: Hip everyone to Elements of Style, V5's latest recording.
TD: The overall group sound is tighter. I am playing with more confidence within the compositions. I also feel like the level of musical interaction is higher. We're all a little bit more used to playing together.
DR: We included a suite, which is about 22 minutes called "Six of One." We haven't done too many pieces of that length with this band. Figuring out how to play a piece like that, how to pace it, how to bring it to life was an interesting challenge. Ken's writing, he is more interested in component parts. There is a lot of juxtaposition happening on the record.
KV: Having had Tim in the band for a longer period of time and being able to work with Tim on rhythmic ideas, hopefully, it will lead the band towards a better idea of what a groove is. Having more time to work with Tim has been significant to the way the band's working now and the way it's developed since he joined the group. The Vandermark 5 is the answer to the question of, "What would a jazz group do now?" Each album for the band has been a step for developing those ideas.
AAJ: Has V5's notoriety tangibly increased?
JB: Crowds have gotten better and the band's been around a long time now and has a fair number of records out now. There is an awareness.
TD: I could sense a little bit even from the first European tour we did and the next European tour we did. The guys talk about that at times. I certainly see it.
KV: Yeah, I would say that is true. In Europe last year, there was a significant shift. The easiest example I can give you is the first time I played in Spain, it was last February and in the fall, we played with The 5 in November and the presenter booked us into a big concert hall that held more than 500 people. This is the second time I had been to Spain at all, so I was concerned about the size of the performance space and told the band that in past experiences, there is maybe a hundred people there and when the hall holds six hundred, it feels like it's empty and to be prepared to play for ourselves and whoever's there. When we were told to go out on stage, we're walking out and the place was packed. It was standing room only. Before we played our first note, people were cheering. That was a very significant moment for me because the word of the music had gotten there before us in a significant way. In March of this year, we played in Krakow for five nights and one night, it was full and every other night, it was standing room only. In some cases, people had traveled four hours to see us play. Those kinds of experiences are unbelievable and they do point to a change in terms of the awareness of the group.
AAJ: With recognition comes the baggage of expectation.
DR: The last couple of years, I've noticed we're asked to play more European festivals, but outside of that, Ken is the one who has to deal with taking pictures, so fortunately, he is the one that has to deal with the popularity issue.
KV: It is dangerous to be received in such a positive way. We need to keep searching and we need to keep challenging ourselves. To me, the music that we play in The Vandermark 5 is music. It's not crucial to me that people understand the entire history of jazz for them to fully appreciate what we're trying to do. Yeah, it is great when that happens. The more people know about the way an art form works, the more they can get out of an experience. But for the music to survive and for the music to continue, it needs to function as a musical outlet for everybody. It can't just be for specialists. I'm not interested in playing music for elitists. I would be more than happy to bring The Vandermark 5 and have them perform in any context, in any city, of any festival of any kind of music because I think that the music that we play speaks to people. I think that is a really crucial thing. Otherwise, the music becomes pigeonholed, categorized and stuck in some stupid box that, in many cases, the jazz media caused to happen.
They want to save the music from commercial destruction. The arts going to work out fine. It doesn't need to be protected. In the long run, we will figure out what is worthwhile. You don't need to protect it. All the people that criticized Miles Davis' electric period, they may not like the music and that's their prerogative, but to say that he was misguided is crazy. It is incredible music, way ahead of its time. To call that music a commercial concession is to actually not have listened to it. Agharta and Pangaea are not commercial records, or On the Corner. Those are really unique perspectives on what music could be at that time. He set the bar incredibly high for what we should be doing, our responsibility as jazz musicians. I think that the music has got to survive in the face of what it means to have music around now. As I travel in the United States and in Europe, the issue isn't whether jazz is going to survive or whether it sells three percent of record sales. The issue is, is live music going to survive. The percentage of people who actually go and see live music in the world is dwindling because of what they're spoon-fed in the mass media. The threat that people seem to be concerned about in the jazz media is idiotic.
The issue is, is music going to survive. That's the thing I'm concerned about. The music has to function and has to speak to people. Yeah, the music I play is not commercially oriented. It is challenging and asking a lot of an audience. But we ask a lot from each other when we make it and I think it's fair to ask a lot from the people who listen to it. But that doesn't mean they have to know the entire history of the music before they can appreciate the first note we play. The music has got to make sense and has to have something to say to people who like music. I'm a music fan, so why would I create music with a concern about whether or not it's true to the jazz tradition. Artists that I respect most from that tradition are all people that went their own way. There is amazing music happening in the underground. That's where it's happening.
AAJ: Are you exhausting the creative well?
KV: The concern I've had in the last year or so has been the lack of ability to access and contemplate the work that I've done. I am concerned about not having a chance to look at what I've learned from what I've done. This year, I've chosen to take January and August off from performing to give myself a chance to just work with the instruments and think about what's happened and what I need to do to move the music forward. I'm fortunate enough to know people who are older than me, who have remained creative and vital throughout their careers, guys like Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, or Fred Anderson. They make it clear that it is completely possible to remain creative throughout your lifetime. The issue is being self-critical and concerned about challenging yourself and not coasting.
The capacity for the human mind to remain creative is completely viable. The issue is more about the choices of the individual. Since I am lucky enough to enjoy what I do so much, I don't feel like it is drudgery. If it feels like a job or a burden, I will back away from it. I am driven to tour because I really love it. I really love what I do. I want to try for a couple of years to take January and August off and give myself a month twice a year to back away. The problem with that is when I do that, I'm not making any money. By the end of January, we were really financially strapped. That is a bit difficult because everybody has to pay their rent. For me, that means I've got to be playing concerts. It's a tricky situation to navigate, but at this point, it is very important to me to remain creative and to think about what I've done and digest it. I'm curious to see what ten years from now will bring and to see where the music's gone. I'm very, very thankful for the opportunities to do these things. I am doing what I dreamed of being able to do and I feel an obligation to really take that challenge as far as I can take it. I feel obligated to fulfill the promise of what could happen, not just for me, but for the music and the people that I work with.
Visit Ken Vandermark on the web at www.kenvandermark.com .