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Music and the Creative Spirit

Ken Vandermark: The Passion and Ascension of a Brilliant Mind

By Published: April 28, 2009
KV: Trying to write for who's in the band is a huge part of the composing aspect. The Vandermark 5 is a group that's been very stable for many years and part of the challenge is writing material that continues to develop as the individuals have changed and developed over time. That's a primary importance on a compositional level. I'm always happier when I'm working with people whom I'm familiar with because it gives me much more grounding in terms of how I can write for the ensemble. Therefore, it's less about instrumentation and more about the individuals. Putting a balanced group together in terms of the instruments is obviously important but more important is who the players are and what their musical personalities are and what their musical personalities are and how I'm going to organize that aspect of the music. I read something from Cecil Taylor where he said that composing starts when the band is selected, or something to that effect, and I think that that's completely true. Once a group is put together, the compositional process has actually started in my head and I think a lot of music is written, without sounding overly romantic about it, in my subconscious. Also, when I tap into the creative process of trying to put stuff down, a lot of it has accessed already in my mind because of my awareness of who the band is. And that's completely attached to the individuals in the band and is of utmost importance to me.

LP: Many of the musicians that I think are some of the stronger soloists tell a story but wait until they get to their solo to do it. But your narrative approach starts right at the beginning of the composition.

KV: Yeah, that's a big part of it. The piece itself has got to tell a story that informs the narratives of the soloists, the improvisers, and the way that they interact in the hierarchy of the piece. Certain pieces are fluid within the hierarchy and others are more conventional in terms of the rhythm section and soloist. But from the beginning of the piece, there has to be a tone set that affects the choices of the players in terms of interpreting the score and then taking that much further and improvising on that score. If that's not going to happen, then there is no point in having the piece. Get rid of the piece. If the piece is not affecting or having an impact on what's going on the overall story, like you said from the beginning of the first note until the end, then there is something ineffective about the piece or there is something wrong about the way that the improvisers are dealing with the material. The piece then is just a crutch. It's not structurally or creatively impacting the music in a way that's important or inspiring, so the performance is just there as a matter of course. It's a convention. And if the compositions are just a mere convention, then get rid of them. There's no point.

LP: Miles Davis said that "The right notes can fertilize the sound of a composition that it can make the sound grow, much like adding lemon to fish or vegetables that bring out the flavor. That it's your sweat." With many of your compositions, you seem to emphasize where and how you use sound textures and colors. I have also noticed that when someone is soloing, you are looking for a place to add sound to enrich what's happening in the music. Can you describe that process, your approach, and what you are attempting to do within the context of the music with regard to sound?

KV: I would agree with your observation because that gets back to this idea of clarity that I was talking about. I would also say that the correlation you make with Miles Davis's music is really insightful to be honest because in the last year or year and a half, I have been studying his music in terms of listening and examining his different periods. Duke Ellington and Miles Davis have had the most impact on my ideas in terms of the jazz perspective. Part of that is because they both continued to change and shift their sensibility over the course of their careers as performers, composers, and improvisers. John Coltrane is another example of someone who was constantly searching. If you look at his earlier styles and notice where he ended up with Interstellar Space, there are a lot of shifts and changes, so Coltrane is another person who had a voice and wanted to hear that voice in different contexts over the course of time. I think with Miles and Ellington, there is a thing about the clarity in which they deal with sound, both in primary composition and secondary elements that work behind the soloists or are integrated into the improvised material. Gill Evans did this perhaps not better than them but certainly as well. The line between improvisation and composition is sometimes blurred in a way that can be very effective but the music always remains very clear.

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