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Ken Vandermark: That Was Now

By Published: October 28, 2005

AAJ: People didn't take him seriously.

KV: I think you're right. You've got this problem where, ok he can do this thing where can circular breathe, he plays multiple instruments, he's almost like a Vaudeville character with the novelty of it. But he was also a real performer, in the sense of drama and theatre, which is a little different from your standard jazz performer who's more straight laced than Rahsaan Roland Kirk was. I think that's part of the problem with the things getting analyzed or considered.

Same problem happened to Sun Ra, even though Sun Ra gets talked about a lot more, I think there's a lot more people familiar with his music these days, or pursue his music these days in terms of listening to it. But if you look at the materials, there's no question Sun Ra was a great composer, great instrumentalist, great band leader, among all the other things he was doing. The whole sensibility about outer space, Saturn and all that stuff, which is part of the mythology around him, sometimes gets in the way of understanding what his music's about.

And I think the same thing is true about Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Say Rahsaan Roland Kirk, immediately people think, okay, he's playing a bunch of horns, nose flute, he never takes a breath, blah, blah, blah. But there's so many other things happening in his music. One of my favorite pieces that he wrote was "the Inflated Tear. Gorgeous, haunting and strange, fantastic piece of music which I think if you heard it today, three decades or so later, you'd be like, wow, what an original album.

As often as I can, I like to subjectively think I'm interested in music, and Rahsaan was a great composer and a great musician. Same thing with Sonny Rollins' material. Everyone talks about Sonny Rollins, and obviously he's one of the great improvisers in the history of the Music, but a lot of times he gets overlooked as a composer. When people do talk about his compositions, they talk about things that came off those records in the late '50s.

But he did all these pieces much more connected to the music I'm interested in, East Broadway Rundown, The Bridge, and these are things he built as well. Why not look at those too, and not just say he was one thing or another thing. It's much more complicated than that, and I think those complexities are fascinating. To say, 'what about Sonny Rollins the avant gardist?' is a worthwhile thing to ask about and look at. At the time, he and John Coltrane were really pointing the way for a lot of the directions of the music. I think it's easy to lose track of that these days. He's a master musician, his history is more connected to the tradition, but there's this thread that went through his music for years and years that doesn't get discussed very much, which I think, if not the greatest stuff he ever did, certainly parallel with it.

The stuff with Don Cherry, Our Man In Jazz, is an unbelievably forward looking recording. Sonny Rollins did that. All those things are why I look at certain people's music if I want to arrange them. What's going on and why are there all these other threads that are maybe not being considered. They're sound engineers, sound explorers.

It's like stories of Steve Lacy talking about Thelonious Monk and the kinds of chords that Monk would use on the piano and the technical sonic impact of the overtones and Monk's ability to control and manipulate those sounds. These are people who worked their whole lives to develop new perspectives towards what this stuff is about. It's not just a bunch of tones.

AAJ: Do Alchemia and The Color of Memory constitute a swan song for the old Vandermark 5?

KV: In a way. I didn't think about it in exactly that sense, but in a way. It's the last music that will be recorded...there won't be more recordings with Jeb Bishop, so for that particular lineup, and then also the fact that Jeb had been with the group from the very beginning definitely was...I mean I had a meeting with the rest of the band and said, there's a couple of ways to look at this—one is to say Jeb leaving the group is the demarcation line for the band. He was there from the start, it's going to be impossible to quote unquote replace him. I don't want to just find some good trombone player and run through a repertoire. I'm just not interested in doing that. That's not what the band's about. It could be a logical place to say, hey, we've done a bunch of good work together.

But everybody in the band was very interested in trying to continue, and remain creatively vital, and keep our rapport. So the question became, what do we do?, who do we look to? After a lot of discussion the logical choice was Fred Lonberg-Holm. We start working with him as soon as I come back from Oslo and Antwerp. We start rehearsing and working on new material with him. So, in a way those recordings could have been the last statement of the group as a whole. But, they're definitely the last statement of the music I was writing for that lineup and with the idea of Jeb being in the band. It's definitely an important set of documents for me. That was the furthest realization of the ideas I had at that time for that group of people. Anything I'm doing from now on will definitely be done with new considerations, not least of which is the instrumentation, and with Fred, the kinds of things he'll bring creatively to the band.

AAJ: Was there a list of people you considered?

KV: We talked through the possibilities of how we wanted to consider the band. Initially the group played in Chicago all the time and we worked primarily in town, rehearsed every week, performed every week all year long for several years. As people's reputations developed, as the band's reputation developed, we did more and more work outside of town. The question we had was, if Jeb leaves, and we do want to continue, since we're working primarily in town, do we look outside Chicago? Do we look outside the United States? We talked through some different people, but the thing we came back to was, if we keep the group connected with Chicago, even if we're not doing concerts, if everybody's in town we can still work together and rehearse new material together.

Since we decided to do that, the list of people from town that made sense, that dramatically reduced it. Even though there's a lot of great players in town, the idea of having another reed player made no sense whatsoever. Jeb's a monster musician. Technically, he can play his ass off, he can read incredibly well, and he's extremely creative. He doesn't just play the same thing everytime he plays. He's really pushing himself all the time. He's very serious about all that and very individual. He's got his own approach to things. So we needed to find someone with that attitude, the attitude of a real improviser with a real individual personality, and with the skills to do a broad range of things. Put that into it, you cut down the list even more.

We needed someone who could be a bandleader in their own right. The idea of Fred came up and it made more sense than anything else we could come up with. Fred is established, he's worked with a huge range of people, can play tons of different kinds of music, the idea of having two reed players and two strings in the group was very interesting. Since Jeb years ago stopped playing guitar, a couple of things we lost was the possibility of having a larger rhythm section. A lot of the horn writing in later years was an attempt to keep different rhythmic possibilities going underneath soloists, so it wasn't just a string of horn solos. Having Fred in there able to comp and back soloists and create more rhythmic diversity and density is really exciting to me. Also, Fred's interest in using different kinds of effects and electronics will add a whole new set of parameters to the group, too. It's a really exciting choice, and the fact that Fred's interested, everyone in the band is really happy about it.

AAJ: You guys have a lot of history with the Territory Band, the Tentet, and the Flying Luttenbachers.

KV: That's the other thing about working with a player from town, there's a lot of history amongst the players here. Instead of starting at zero, you've got some ground there to work on, some ideas of what might be possible and take it from there.

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