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Ken Vandermark: That Was Now

By Published: October 28, 2005

AAJ: Anything going on with Spaceways, Inc?

KV: Not really. It's kind of ironic, because Nate McBride's been living in Chicago for about a year now. It really gets down to the difficulty of trying to find and pin down Hamid Drake. I don't know if he's ever home, if he is he's probably hiding and trying to sleep. The guy works unbelievably hard, and most of that work is on tour. So, to try out new stuff with Spaceways, or DKV has been difficult just for trying to coordinate with Hamid, his schedule's so crazy.

Right now there aren't any plans, and that's why I'm instigating this new project in Norway, the Powerhouse Sound group. I really really love the funk and reggae genres of music and the possibilities that are there to try to coordinate stuff that would work in an improvising setting. So, this band is going to be a group designed to deal with those kind of rhythms and textures. That's part of the reason why that group got built, because I was extremely happy working with Nate and Hamid and the way that group worked, even as a trio. There was a lot we could get done. I don't want to leave that stuff finished, there's a lot more I'd like to try to explore with it, so I'm hoping the Powerhouse group will work out well that way.

AAJ: If "Knock Yourself Out from Alchemia is any measure, you still have a lot of funk in you.

KV: Oh yeah, there's a lot there to work with. There's a lot of ways to work with those rhythms, and I think you can take on the energy and the construction of the way the time and grooves work, and not box the players into a very rigid harmonic and form sensibility, so it's so repetitious and so circular that it gets bogged down into an inability to express more than just a very limited set of materials. I'm really interested in trying to work with the ideas of what attracts me rock music, or reggae, or funk. And what, out of those things that attract me, can motivate a starting place for improvisation, as opposed to just a static platform for improvisation. There's a lot to do with that.

There's a lot of freedom in that music. Just recently I watched a tv transcription of James Brown's concert in 1968 in Boston the day after Martin Luther King was shot, and that music is so free in so many ways. There are certain things that need to be accomplished for the material to be realized, but if you watch and follow the music, a lot of the forms are really open ended, and they're not based on a specific number of repetitions. The cues are coming off how long James Brown chooses to dance. How long he likes someone's solo, or this or that.

There's a real sense of tension and excitement in the way the band has to follow Brown's direction, because without that it would go into cruise control. He's really guiding these flexible forms, and I'm really really interested in the way he constructs stuff, and the possibilities in that to do stuff in music that's even more removed from what people would consider dance music, taking some of those characteristics and qualities and putting them into a situation where people can really range improvisationally with those materials.

There's a film clip I saw of one of my favorite records of his, a live concert from 1971 Paris, called Love, Power, Peace, and there's a moment at the beginning of the concert where the band shifts from one groove to another groove that is very loosely, maybe metrically associated, but it's basically a tape splice. It sounds like it's maybe an edited record, but it's done in real time by the band, and the cue for the change, I watched it over and over to figure what he was doing to cue, and it looks like he's just shaking his head, maybe moving his arm a little bit, but it's clear that's the cue. And everybody in the band makes it. It's like he hides these gestures so that audience will be completely blown away by these shifts the band could make, even though they aware of what they were look for. The kind of theatre involved with him is pretty powerful.

AAJ: It's like he's playing the band.

KV: Exactly. It is an unbelievably disciplined and very focused, structured set of principles they're working with, and one of things I find so interesting about that Love, Power, Peace album, with Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, and a whole crew of people he fired right after that. It's the one time I heard the band take over. The band is so burning, James Brown is still directing it, but there's a point at the beginning of the concert where he yells out, "Hang on! It's like it's for himself, because the band is pile-driving. Bootsy looks like he's twelve years old playing this monstrous bass.

AAJ: Also on Alchemia are a couple of Rahsaan Roland Kirk suites. Big Kirk fan?

KV: Yes. I think it's interesting he had so much impact on the scene in the '70s, he was very very present. I think for whatever set of reasons when people talk about jazz histories, he just doesn't get mentioned as much as some other people. For me, in my own personal interest in styles of music and interfacing those different styles, he was doing stuff with soul music, funk, popular music, and integrating it into his own set of ideas thirty years ago. I think there's a lot for us to learn and explore. So, the arrangements I did of his music were a way to go directly to the source of that, to look at it and try to learn from it. But I think he's an amazing musician and an incredible composer. Some of his pieces are just incredible.

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