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Ken Vandermark: Raw and Refined

By Published: March 13, 2006

Beauty in Free Jazz

AAJ: A friend once asked what I thought was a pretty good question: With respect to free jazz, where are the romantic love songs?

KV: [chuckles] The romantic love songs? This comes back to the way the music is heard and received. Without question, again to use Peter Brötzmann as an example—because he's someone that's so often associated with the kind of aesthetic he presented on Machine Gun and so often gets categorized as this, like, hard-blowing, Teutonic kind of musician when in fact he's much, much more than that— I think that he's an example of someone who has quite a bit of very beautiful music in a conventional sense of what that word may mean to people...and his album 14 Love Poems, there are things on there, without question to use one example, that are extremely, extremely beautiful.

In all the kind of music I like, there's a kind of raw, edgy character and I would put Billie Holiday in that category. I think that to me, the kind of emotional directness in her music, and particularly in her later singing when her, her instrument had been so damaged, there's an immediacy to her music that I connect with the music of Albert Ayler. Certainly they don't sound the same but the content, the power of expression, the directness of expression, to me there's a relationship and I would say that Albert Ayler has a lot of music that's extremely beautiful, in a way romantic in the sense of expression as a means to change people's perception in that way. So yeah, I think there are a lot of examples of that music, or that kind of approach to the music, that content in the music that's being made now. I think that the issue, once again, that people have to be willing to let down their guard and receive it in the way that it was created, the kind of sets of intentions it was created for and not expect to hear a Lester Young ballad when they're listening to Albert Ayler, but that they would hear something else equally as powerful and emotionally resonant.

AAJ: Earlier you said that in terms of recording, your goal was to present the music as it would be heard if it were being played live on stage. On Territory Band-4's Company Switch, there's a section that was overdubbed, does this signal a shift in your thinking?

KV: Not really. You're talking about where Lasse recorded a separate track and we dumped it in?

AAJ: Right.

KV: Yeah, that was more an effort to, to create a solution to the problem, and the problem being that we had this really strong take of music except for this section where his equipment failed. So rather than get the entire ensemble to do another version of the piece which may not have been as strong for whatever set of reasons, it seemed to make sense to take the few minutes that involved Lasse and come up with a way to get the music to work as a whole. In that particular situation, the idea of having him, rather than hear the music and relate to something that was prerecorded, just do something completely spontaneous without any reference point...which was totally not the way the piece was designed and not the intention initially, but created a surprise which for me is a big part of what the music is about. In that particular case it seemed to be the best solution to the problem but normally, I would say 98% of the time the goal is to perform the music as I would in any circumstance and get a recorded document of that if I'm in the studio and very rarely at this point would I want to alter what has been done. In that particular case, "Local Works," that was the way to solve the problem that I hadn't expected. So an unexpected solution, I guess, and somewhat ironic if I made sense.

AAJ: In a way, it's the exception that proves the rule?

KV: Yeah, I would say so [laughs]. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Who Do You Play For?

AAJ: I'm going to rip-off a question that Art Taylor used to pose: Do you play for yourself or do you play for the people?

KV: The best response I ever heard to that, to rip-off another musician, was something that Elvin Jones said. He said he tries to play for the music. In my experience and in terms of my perspective, I completely agree with that stance. What I've tried to do from the entire time I've played music is to focus on what the music is about, what I'm trying to accomplish creatively with the music and think about what I can do to make the music stronger. When I've done that, it's always led me to good decisions, I think, about how to get my music to people, why I would be doing that and how it affects audiences and other musicians. If you're working hard to make the music sound good and try to meet the needs of what the music is indicating, I think the audience is going to have a good experience.

When I go back and listen to recordings and think about concerts I've seen, the memories, the best memories, the most positive memories are of musicians and groups that were playing and working on music on the absolute highest level it could be done. It's like Ornette Coleman's quartet, we talk about that group, the group with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, we talk about John Coltrane's quartet, we talk about Cecil Taylor's unit, we talk about Schlippenbach Trio, we talk about all these potential groups. These are people that pushed the music they were working on to the furthest points again and again to find something new to do with it, and to challenge themselves. And I think that meets the needs of the audience. It doesn't need to be; I mean, sometimes I think, am I trying to please the audience? That gets into a set of performance ideas that frankly aren't as important as making the music good. If I do my job as a band leader, as a composer to make the music interesting for the music's sake, make it strong for the music's sake, and providing material for the musicians that hopefully will inspire them it'll make them play better.

So if the center of gravity is about music, I think the rest of it will take care of itself and that's why I really agree with what Elvin Jones said. I think that's the best response I've ever heard to that question. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...


AAJ-e: Do you have any thoughts on diminishing radio airplay of adventurous musicians in the U.S.? And is the internet poised to take over radio's former role as a key to exposure?

KV-e: I would say that for the last several years the source of information for improvised music that has been growing the most has been found on the internet. Mainstream jazz periodicals have not been covering adventurous music represented by independent labels in any serious way or on a regular for quite a while, and mainstream/public radio has also been quite limited in representing this side to what's happening culturally. Most of my music is played on college radio in the United States and I'm extremely thankful for their support.

AAJ-e: Just for fun, Ellery Eskelin's band with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black was once described as being the Beatles of jazz (personally I think Pink Floyd might be more appropriate). To extending the analogy, and considering the Vandermark 5's light and shade-like dynamics, would it be fair to say the Vandermark 5 is the Led Zeppelin of improvised music?

KV-e: Is this regarding our drinking habits or the way we dress? class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Selected Discography

Vandermark 5, The Color Of Memory (Atavistic, 2005)
Territory Band-4, Company Switch (Okka, 2005)
Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet, Be Music, Night (Okka, 2005)
Sonore, No One Ever Works Alone (Okka, 2005)
FME, Cuts (Okka, 2005)
Hoxha, Line 26 (Spool, 2005)
Atomic/School Days, Nuclear Assembly Hall (Okka, 2004)
Vandermark 5, Alchemia (Not Two, 2004)
Ken Vandermark, Furniture Music (Okka, 2003)
FME, Live At The Glenn Miller Café (Okka, 2002)
Paal Nilssen-Love & Ken Vandermark, Dual Pleasure (SmallTown SuperSound, 2002)
Spaceways Inc., Version Soul (Atavistic, 2002)
Territory Band-2, Atlas (Okka, 2002)
Vandermark 5, Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2 (Atavistic, 2002)
AALY Trio + Ken Vandermark, Live At The Glenn Miller Cafe (Wobbly Rail, 1999)
DKV Trio, Live In Wels & Chicago (Okka, 1999)
Vandermark 5, Burn The Incline (Atavistic, 1999)
FJF, Blow Horn (Okka, 1997)
NRG Ensemble, Bejazzo Gets A Facelift (Atavistic, 1997)

Photo Credits:
Top Performance Shot: Bartosz Winiarski
Vandermark 5 Photo: Joel Wanek

Second Performance Shot: Bob Windy

Free Music Ensemble (FME): Andreas Froland

Third Performance Shot: Juan-Carlos Hernandez
Bottom Performance Shot: Seth Tisue

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