Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind
KV: The way I play and write for groups tends to deal with rhythm, which is one of the most critical elements I'm dealing with. Rhythm is a consistent factor in all the different kinds of music, and there are a variety of rhythms attached to the way different people and music deal with time. I'm not a harmonically oriented player. I'm a melodically/rhythmically oriented player and I've always heard music that way. When I hear groups play and I find something lacking in the performance, it's usually connected to the way they deal with rhythm or tempo in a way I don't find interesting. Since the beginning of the Vandermark 5, the ensemble has dealt with exploring the different possibilities in rhythm. That's why I think a small part of what the group does is related to jazz time and the way that time feels rhythmically. It also has the kind of propulsion that incorporates a lot of elements of more open time that may come out of Cecil Taylor's music. This is wave energy as opposed to strict pulse energy. The group is also incorporating rhythmic feels completely out of improvised music such as funk, or different kinds of traditional world music that has nothing to do with jazz.
LP: Drummers seem to be a key element within the chemistry of your groups.
KV: For me, the most essential musician in the group is the drummer. I think the drummer defines more aspects of the music than any other individual and so my in each group is the most important relationship I have musically. Drummers define the dynamic level, the rhythmic flow more than anybody else in the group and end up affecting structural indications more than anyone else along with every element of the music. For instance, if you have a mediocre horn section with a great drummer, that band will sound really good, but if you have a great horn section with a horrendous drummer, the band will sound bad. You cannot overcome a bad drummer and a great drummer will make the music really come alive. This again is tied to the way I approach things which is more from a rhythmic base than from anything else so that relationship is completely connected to me. They are inseparable. There is an issue of chemistry and communication that doesn't seem to get talked about that much which is about the way individuals relate to each other and less about individual skills. You have great players who don't communicate well just as you can have really cool people who can't have a conversation. They just don't communicate. The key is really about group communication and chemistry, and chemistry can be incredibly unpredictable but there are times that you cannot anticipate the way a group of people are going to work in a room. So chemistry is like this X factor.
Look at the Miles Davis group after Coltrane left. He tried to find that chemistry again but had to totally revamp the group. The group with Wayne Shorter had a different rhythm section with a totally different approach and yet that group had amazing chemistry. Miles was a genius at putting groups together, but even someone as brilliant as Miles Davis at organizing ensembles had to find an entirely different set of chemistry before he could find a group that was as strong as the group he had with Coltrane. That's a mysterious element to the music, which is really essential and for some reason doesn't get looked at very much. Mingus was able to put groups together that were just completely burnin.' That group with Dolphy and Jaki Byard was one of the greatest groups I have ever heard. There were more famous and versatile drummers than Danny Richmond but no one would have sounded as good in that band. You could have had Philly Jo Jones in that band and it wouldn't have made any sense. It may have sounded all right but the thing that Danny Richmond and Mingus had was one of the great bass and drummer relations in the history of the music. And that was chemistry.
LP: One of the aspects of the music that you are involved in is that every individual within each band has a unique voice and an equal say of what's happening within the creative process. Do you mind talking about your approach and how you incorporate the relationship between the individuals you have in mind with your compositions?