A Fireside Chat With Ken Vandermark
“ ...this particular band [The Vandermark 5] has a real stylistic range that is unusual for most bands working in improvised music at this time. ”
Improvised music post-Wynton has been a barren wasteland of record company manufactured 'young lions' or all-star jam sessions. All have done nothing to advance the music, but instead have relegated improvisation to historical overviews. Being a card-carrying member of Gen X, I have no interest is hearing, much less seeing, how well someone can play a Monk tune, considering I can pop in Brilliant Corners and get it from the source. Brass tax is even a bleaker when considering the target demographic for purchasers is ages 24-44.
So when all these cats that grew up having seen bebop come to pass die, well, the music is doomed along with it because I know no high school kid (outside of those in the band) that listen to improvised music. Those 'kids' won't be kids for long and in a blink will be in that coveted demographic. It is unrealistic to think jazz on any level will compete with Linkin Park or 50 Cent and if you believed so, there is a bridge in Iraq I would be more than happy to sell you. What is realistic however, is improvised music can sell more than a few hundred copies, which is the number a vast majority of releases sell. It can attract someone other than a middle-aged businessman or couple on a date to shows. But it has to remain current. Otherwise, doom is not a possibility, it is inevitable.
So I have long been a proponent of Ken Vandermark, not because he is the 'best' improviser or he is a poster child for Verve or Blue Note, but because he is of my time and the music he plays makes sense to me. And since I am in the purchasing demographic, record companies should fucking pay attention. As always, this conversation is brought to you commercial free, unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: You have long been a champion of the music of Albert Ayler, Don Cherry, canons not frequently approached.
KEN VANDERMARK: It depends a bit from composer to composer, but essentially, the thing is their pieces have a lot of room left for investigation. The music of Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and, in some cases, Coltrane, those pieces have really been investigated by other players and there are different interpretations of those pieces. Whereas with Albert Ayler, aside from a few rare examples, Ayler's music was mainly played by him in bands that he led. That is true for a lot of the people who came out of the post-Coltrane free jazz period of music. In the case of looking at their compositions, it's been more an opportunity to see what is in there for someone like myself playing now. In some cases, it is thirty-five or more years after the fact. I think that there is a lot left to be said with those pieces. In certain cases, they are incredible vehicles for improvisation. In the case of Cherry, in the years to come, he will, in my mind, get recognized as one of the most significant people in the jazz history because his forward thinking about including a large range of stylistic influences into his own music and finding a personal way to reinterpret those things will be much, much more common.
Many of the people that I play with now are coming out of a wide variety of backgrounds, some of them coming out of rock music, some of those coming out of reggae, some coming out of jazz, and some coming out of completely free improvisation. And almost all of them are willing and interested in exploring different avenues of music and Don Cherry was doing that back in the Sixties. He was the first person to really successfully integrate music from different parts of the world into his own lexicon. I think that his perspective on inclusionary music will become much more common because more and more people are familiar with a wider range of music historically and stylistically. Most real music fans now have jazz albums, have funk albums, have world music albums, and all these other things. They listen to a wide range of music and the people playing the music now are like that too. I think he indicated a way of working that will become much more common. So his pieces are very interesting to play because they're very open ended. A lot of times, people associate his own compositions with Ornette Coleman's work and they are actually quite different. If you look at the music that he did for Complete Communion and the themes and the way that those themes are worked, I've seen some footage of that band playing live and have heard other recordings of that material and the way that it interacts with the improvisation is extremely fluid. It is not, and I have talked to Hamid Drake about this, this is true even later in Cherry's career, where he would just bring in a snippet of a theme. He would bring in something and the band would need to jump on it. Cherry was very interested in mixing things up in a way that is different from Ornette Coleman's approach. I think that Don Cherry, for me, is one of the most significant people that I am familiar with.
AAJ: Are you still involved with the NRG Ensemble?
KV: That group is kind of on a long term hiatus. I left the band in the spring of '96. I haven't played with it for a couple of years under the leadership of Mars Williams after Hal Russell passed away. I played for a short period of time with Hal as a sub for Mars Williams. That was a real central group to the first period of my work, especially the first record we made, Calling All Mothers, I think, to my ears, was the strongest statement by that band and the way that the group worked was less connected to Hal Russell's methods and more connected to Mars Williams and in some cases, my ideas for pieces that I brought into the band to play. That group and The Vandermark Quartet were the starting ground for trying to find my own way to integrate different kinds of music that I was interested in. In both cases, those bands had a lot of influence from underground rock sources. There was electric guitar in both of those groups. It was less connected to the swing of jazz and more the driving pulse of rock. Neither of those groups are in existence anymore, but they both were a real important starting place for me.