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Ken Vandermark: Raw and Refined

By Published: March 13, 2006

In an almost an inverse way...I know that for many years it took me, I mean it took me a long time to figure out that Cecil Taylor's music had conventionally notated material involved. You know in the early years of listening to him, I was blown away and impressed with the amount of energy and kinetic motion in his music, but it wasn't until I heard Student Studies after listening to Cecil for a few years that I realized, wait a minute, there's reference points here that they know ahead of time—it's not just all improvised. Okay, that points to my own listening ignorance and the time it's taken me to figure things out but once that happened, then it was okay. There's a certain sense of organization here, there's a certain clarity that I was missing before and once I was able to kind of crack that it got me to the clarity in Cecil Taylor's playing. Because Cecil is a great artist, because Lester Young is a great artist, their music has a lot of emotional resonance. It has a lot of intellectual resonance and it's like any art; it speaks to many levels simultaneously in a complex way. A beautiful Lester Young solo is not unlike a powerful Cecil Taylor explosion at the keyboards to me. The way they sound is quite different, the way they organize their material is quite different, but the complexity of experience is on a similar level and that's based on the way I receive that music and hear it, you know. An art experience, listening to music, looking at a painting...part of the thing that's fascinating about it is, there is a lot of subjective perspective and that makes the thing interesting to talk about [laughs]. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Changing Subjectivity

AAJ: As a listener, I've noticed that even personal subjectivity changes; what seemed like nonsense in the past becomes something beautiful and fascinating today.

KV: Oh yes, that's the thing; that we're constantly changing and that the music is constantly changing. Like you said, that's a reference point you go back to hear something that you think you know, and like, you know the art of Thelonious Monk, it's fascinating to go back and hear him again and again and realize how much I've changed in relationship to that music because it's a recording, it's a quantifiable thing—and the quantity that's changed is me.

AAJ: Exactly, the subject matter has remained fixed in time, but the listener is changing which changes the listener's whole experience.

KV: And that's why I think anybody who's serious about the music is always changing and their music is always changing and why you find a lot of the frustration at least with the people I'm friends with and know, why they get frustrated with how common it is to be pigeonholed as a certain kind of player doing a certain kind of thing, and how that prevents an open mind for so many people when they listen to the music. Again, it gets back to the idea of preconceptions and when you're dealing with a music that's supposed to be, for my mind, about exploding preconceptions, about erasing the status quo, about breaking apart boundary lines. It's very surprising to me how common it is for people to want to standardize the thinking about it and define people in a very, very limited way. And any art is complex, as we've already talked about. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Wynton Marsalis

AAJ: Off the record if you prefer: I think Wynton Marsalis became a victim of that line of thought. Folks attack the guy for the smallest reasons.

KV: Yeah, well I think that part of that may be because there's been an effort, it would seem to me on the basis of the work at the Lincoln Center and things that Wynton Marsalis is involved in, where he has really made a huge effort to define the characteristics of what makes something a jazz performance, or not. If your goal is to sort of develop categories and definitions in such a limiting kind of way, at least as far as I've understood it and have thought about it in comparison I would say that the thing is more open-ended than can be defined in a simple set of definitions. In a way, if you approach the music in that way, it's not surprising that people will turn around and approach what you're creating with the same set of standards or principles, you know what I'm saying?

AAJ: That's a good point. The way I've looked at it, Wynton's opinions, his thoughts, his method of organization does nothing so much as tell people of the self-imposed framework he works within. So I'm not sure what all the heat is about.

KV: Don't you think, as I've seen it, that the work at the Lincoln Center has been very connected into defining what jazz is and isn't?

AAJ: I'd have to agree since the Lincoln Center is so visible to the public, that it's hard to get away from.

KV: Yeah because, I mean I know that, at least things that I've heard, when people have asked well, why haven't you had certain people perform, the response is they're great, they're fantastic but they're not jazz musicians. And that, to me, sounds like they have a pretty strong sense of what is and isn't jazz as an art form. To me that's like saying, well, a certain kind of painting is painting and a certain kind of painting isn't painting, and that's way too limiting. Jazz, and this the way I see it so I have to preface it that way, jazz isn't a style to me. It's much broader than that. It's an art form which means it encompasses many, many different styles, many, many different sets of ideals and it's a living thing. It's something that's going to constantly change beyond the control of any set of individuals, and it has to do that to survive as an artistic act. Otherwise it's just a repertory, it's a museum piece. And the music I know and the music I play and the people I know and work with, we're definitely not interested in belonging to a museum. We're looking for something else to make.

AAJ: I don't think you have to worry about that aspect anytime soon.

KV: [chuckles] That's probably true.

AAJ: Would you rather that I not publish this part in the interview?

KV: No, I mean that's fine. You know I have respect for all the people that are working in this field and I think it's worth talking about these things because it needs, you know, it's a discussion and certainly the way I think about it is different then a lot of people, including people who are working in ways that are seemingly more in connection with the way that I work. It's worth noting these issues because if we don't talk about then they just sit there and don't move.

AAJ: As it is now, folks seem divided into two camps: One in thoughtless support of Wynton, and the other intent on vilifying the man. There's very little middle ground.

KV: There's gotta be a way to discuss these things in a way that's productive. Like anything, money is involved and if money is involved, certain kinds of power and political thinking are involved. I think that it's hard to separate the choices that some people are making from the issue of if you control a product, if you define something and make it a product, then you're gonna make some people angry. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Invention Versus Discovery

AAJ: Is there such a thing as invention or is there only discovery?

KV: I would think that there's invention. There are certain kinds of technical developments that people, I think, create and invent, you know? For example, Derek Bailey comes to mind 'cause he passed away recently. His approach to playing guitar, he invented a lot of that, at least by the way I define the word invention. He may have been influenced by other guitarists or other kinds of music even to realize his ideas on the guitar, but without question he invented a number of techniques on the instrument and certain kinds of tools that have been picked up by other guitar players since he developed them. So I would say yeah, invention is certainly possible.

AAJ-e: Judging by the large number of your recordings found published on Okka, you seem to have a fast bond with Bruno Johnson. Could you talk about your relationship with Bruno and how it started?

KV-e: When I met Bruno a little more than a decade ago I found out he was one of the few non-musicians who really knew and understood jazz and improvised music. Pretty soon after becoming friends he told me he was interested in branching out a rock 45 label he had, called One And A Quarter York, to include new improvised music—this became Okka Disk. The first releases on the label were Fred Anderson's duo album with Steve McCall, and the Caffeine album, back in 1994 I believe. We've continued to work together because he's one of the few people whose opinion I trust, and who represents the same attitude the musicians have towards the music through his label. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

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