A Fireside Chat With Ken Vandermark

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...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.

AAJ: And the Peter Br'tzmann Chicago Tentet?

KV: That's continuing. That is an ongoing thing. We actually have some work coming up in July of this year in Europe. We did a bunch of work last year, including that North American tour and recorded a bunch of new material. That, thankfully, is an ongoing concern. Peter is really committed to try and keep the band working as long as he can despite the fact that logistically and economically, it is a really difficult group to hold together just with everyone's schedules and the cost of ten people getting together from all over the world every time we assemble. Working in that band, the main thing has been the impact of being able to play with Peter Br'tzmann on a semi-regular basis and being around him and kind of observing the way he leads a band. He is an unbelievably democratic bandleader and incredibly respectful of the people he works with. The band's aesthetics are really defined in many ways by Peter, but he is very open to the input of the other musicians. So he has got a very generous way of getting musicians to work under his umbrella and allowing them to be who they are within ideas that he finds interesting as a bandleader. That's been an amazing experience and just the level of his creative skills and creative ability. He is playing better now than he ever has and being around that kind of energy is incredibly inspiring.

AAJ: Your name is also associated with a handful of projects, Spaceways Incorporated.

KV: That group is still going. We did a European tour in November and we've got another European tour in May and June. I am hoping to do some more recording with that group this year if it is possible to organize it. It is very difficult to hook up schedules with Hamid Drake, which is always a challenge. That group has a lot of potential in it. It is really great to work with a trio and it is really great to work with a group that has the stylistic range. Hamid is an incredible jazz drummer and his skills in the reggae field and in the funk field is unparalleled right now in the music that is going on in all kind of spheres. And Nat McBride is a rare bassist that is equally adept at upright and also electric bass and likes playing both. Getting to work with those guys and now, also playing our own material, the first record was devoted to Sun Ra's music and the music of Funkadelic and the second record was kind of using those parameters to kind of write our own music and mixing all that stuff up in performance has been really, really exciting and I am hoping that we are going to be able to do more work down the line and actually do some more material that we can record. We have this tour coming up and hopefully, we will get a chance to actually tour in the United States, which hasn't happened yet.

AAJ: School Days?

KV: School Days is still ongoing. We have some work coming up again, probably in Norway in the summertime. We are collaborating with another group called Atomic, which is a Scandinavian ensemble. That group to me is kind of connected with the aesthetics of the free jazz period in the United States coming out of the Sixties and early Seventies. I am hoping that we are able to make a personal stamp on that. Just the lineup, with the vibes, bass and drums, trombone, and the reeds and the types of materials that are being brought in there compared to The Vandermark 5, for example, the music that I am bringing into School Days is connected to a head, solo, head format, which is more consistent with that period's aesthetics. That is a great band. It is a case of being able to work with a totally different rhythm section that has a totally specific kind of personality. Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt H'ker Flaten have been playing together for years and years. Getting to work with their collaboration and their history is really fantastic and is one of the examples of why I like working with so many different people.

AAJ: And the Territory Band?

KV: That band will be ongoing as long as I can sustain it. The biggest issue there is money. I have been using a bunch of MacArthur funds to bring the band together. We have gotten together three times. In Chicago, we recorded the third album of material this past September and then we went and played in Berlin and did a short tour with that group. I am hoping that we will be able to do much more performance work with the band. The last time the band got together, Paal Nilssen-Love is playing the drums now with Paul Lytton and that particular lineup, the chemistry of the band is really astounding and when we got together in September, it really, really felt like a band in a way that is very hard to articulate. You can have a group of fantastic musicians who look like they would work great together on paper and maybe they do play together really well, but there is something that happens in the synergy of an ensemble that it becomes a band where a lot of stuff can be unspoken. There is a lot of communication that happens through the suggestion of stuff that maybe on a page and it leapfrogs and transcends very quickly into high level music. The last time we got together, that was really happening. Everybody in the band seems very committed to sticking together and trying to do more work. The biggest issue is a financial one because it is a very, very international band with people scattered all over the place and kind of like Peter Br'tzmann's Tentet, it is a logistical and economic nightmare in some ways, but really worth the effort.

AAJ: The DKV Trio?

KV: That band is again connected to the availability of Hamid Drake. It is kind of a free wheeling ensemble, so we don't have to get together and rehearse material. We are much more off the cuff and devoted to more open improvisation. Even when we are playing tunes, there isn't a sense of working out material. It is more hitting the stage and playing. The biggest issue is trying to find time to hook up with Hamid. We were supposed to do a tour in Europe in February and March and his scheduling got screwed up, so Kent (Kessler) and I went out with Paul Lytton, which was a great tour and I learned a ton from it, but it was a case of trying to pin Hamid's schedule down. That band is ongoing as long as we can find a way to get the three of us in the same concert hall. We are hoping to do a bunch more this year, but it is just a scheduling issue.

AAJ: And lastly, The Vandermark 5.

KV: The 5 is really the spearhead group of all the stuff that I am doing, the most investigation compositionally, the most consistent performing. All those things are really coming out of that band. It has been the longest standing group. We have been together for seven years now. We have put out a number of albums. We have the new album that just came out. Being able to hold that band together for so long and have it continue to develop from album to album and from year to year has been incredibly exciting for me. We have been playing on a weekly basis in Chicago since November of '96. So it has been more than six years of doing a weekly stand there and the audiences have been fantastic still. We did a CD release concert just this past Tuesday and we had 170, 180 people there on a weeknight and we have been getting audiences of at least a hundred out when we play. This period with that band is one of the most important things that I have been involved with.

AAJ: Recent V5 albums include Acoustic Machine.

KV: That was the first record we did without Jeb Bishop playing electric guitar. It was definitely a major transition for the band, especially for me in terms of the writing because up until that point, I had been able to utilize the orchestral possibilities of the guitar and how it would affect the rhythm section and different stylistic concerns. So Acoustic Machine was a very important record in terms of defining how the band would work without that element in it. It was the last record that Tim Mulvenna did with the band. In a way, I wouldn't call it a transitional record, but it really defines the beginning of a bunch of changes in the band. It is kind of an indicator of where will go over the next stretch of time.

AAJ: And the bonus discs that were released as Free Jazz Classics, Vols. 1 & 2 ?

KV: Oh, yeah, that was put out as an official release because there was a lot of people who weren't able to get a hold of it as a bonus disc with the first 1,500 copies of Burn the Incline and then Acoustic Machine. So we put those out so people could actually get them because there were a lot of people who wanted to and couldn't. All that stuff was initially motivated out of trying to do something special for those records, for people who had been fans of the band. It really was about what you started the conversation about, these other composers whose work is very interesting to me personally and trying to rearrange some of that material for this particular band. I think that it has actually been interesting for the band to work on because when we perform now, we will play like one or two of those pieces in the set and it is kind of a reference point to get us out of, everything else that we do is what I compose and I think there is something healthy about playing some other material, even if I did the arrangements for it, just to kind of reset the thinking of the band. There is a big difference between a piece by Ornette Coleman and something that I've written and so if we were looking at a tune by Ornette Coleman, it causes us to rethink the way that we look at the other material in the book and the way that the audience receives that material and the way that affects their thinking and the connections that they may or may not make. It is really great and gratifying to play a tune by Cecil Taylor. How often does someone get to hear that music, looked at in a live context? That is a big part of why that stuff was released.

AAJ: And the latest release on Atavistic, Airports for Light, the first with newcomer Tim Daisy.

KV: Well, Tim (Daisy) definitely had a huge impact on the band. The main thing for me is his openness. He has an immense amount of energy and commitment to trying new things out and working really closely with me on different rhythmic ideas. I think that this new album is the beginning of a lot of things that are going to be developed further in terms of rhythmic approaches to playing in a more open-ended way, in a more fluid way. That has been really fantastic and I also think that when Tim Mulvenna decided to leave the group, the rest of us had a long discussion on whether we should continue the band. Tim had been with the group since it began and we've been together for a long time. The question was, 'Do we stop now? Or do we get up and say that we have more to do?' And for my standpoint, I feel very strongly, even now, that there is a lot more for the band to do creatively. I don't feel like we are in a box at all or just kind of running through clich's or stock stuff that the band does. I don't hear that at all. Thankfully, the rest of the band was really interested in pursuing it too and the only name we could come up with in Chicago that would allow us to continue to work the way we had with these weekly gigs, lots of rehearsal, lots of touring possibility, was Tim Daisy. He really stepped in and from the get go has played his ass off. He has developed as a drummer immeasurably in the last year. He was strong coming in, but I have never worked with anybody who has grown as a musician this quickly.

It is amazing to be around and very, very inspiring to be around. He has so much positive, creative energy. It has been great for the band. In a way, it gave the group that had been together a long time and done a lot of work together, his new attitude, for him everything is fresh, it reinvigorated the whole group and it has been a great addition to the band. In a sense, he really saved the band from ending. There is low-key stuff on it. I think on every record, there has been an attempt to investigate stuff that is more introspective. Possibly on this record and maybe a little bit on the last album, we've been more successful working in that area and hopefully, the statements have been stronger in the more introspective stuff and the band has always been more of a hard-driving group. I think a variety of approach on this album is part of its strength. For me, there is a real consistency piece to piece. There is also a huge range of approach. There is really not much 'jazz' material on it. There is a lot more abstraction and moving away from convention and styles. For me, the album is the strongest statement the group has made so far as an ensemble.

AAJ: Is there anything that is taboo for The V5?

KV: From my standpoint, no. I think if the aesthetics provide something interesting to instigate improvisers to do something challenging, I am more than willing to look at anything. I have been working very, very hard to integrate things that I find interesting musically and I think that that means that this particular band has a real stylistic range that is unusual for most bands working in improvised music at this time. From the beginning of the group, it has really been about investigating all these stylistic interests and hopefully developing that and building further and further along with it. At this point, the band is very capable of making these very abrupt changes and shifts in terms of the character of a piece. Many of the pieces tend to be long, sequential, narrative pieces, as opposed to head, take a solo, and here's the head again. They tend to be more involved than that and the band, at this point, the members of it are very used to working that way and it is a very natural way for us to play, which is not what you usually hear when you hear playing this kind of music now. I would say that I am pretty much open to anything that inspires me and thankfully, the band has been really respective to the things that I have found interesting and I have brought into the group to work on.

AAJ: You are about to embark on the initial East Coast leg of the Airports for Light Tour, there were unconfirmed West Coast dates.

KV: We've been working on setting up a tour on the West Coast that would happen in June. If things go well, it will start up in the Northwest, starting in Vancouver or Seattle and we would work our way south. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to pin that down yet. The biggest problem is the cost of getting out there. There is really not a whole lot between Chicago and the West Coast in terms of places to play, so either you are driving for two or three days with nothing, which is expensive or you are flying, which is expense. I think that is what the problem has been, to make sure we have enough gigs to warrant going out there. If everything goes well, we will do about ten or twelve days, which would allow us to really do a thorough tour of the West Coast. That would happen during the second half of June.

AAJ: With success, however small, misconceptions are abound. The MacArthur grant has been a preface to you since you received it in 1999. As much as it has been beneficial, has it also become a burden?

KV: I would probably say that yeah, there are downsides to it. Feedback has gotten back to me that there were a number of people that were really unhappy that I was chosen for it. From my own standpoint, I never ever assumed, and still don't assume that I deserved it and that I belong in the pantheon of the other musicians that have been awarded the prize. I didn't feel a burden in that way. I find it frustrating that when people who don't know me can make judgments about why I would do things or what I deserve or this or that, but that is true of anybody. That is a human response. I find it indicative of the comments and where they may have been coming from that no one has ever said anything to my face about it. If you have a problem with it, I am more than open to talking about the issue and discussing it and maybe give my own point of view on it, but no one ever does that. I remember getting a phone call from a musician friend in San Francisco and he said that he had heard about the MacArthur and he didn't know whether to say congratulations on send my apologies because everybody out here is really bitching about it. And none of those people even know me. So if there has been a burden or frustration, I find that frustrating, but there is nothing I can do about it. I see in general, it has been a fantastic opportunity. I felt really good about how I have been using the money towards the music. I think it has enabled me to accomplish amazing things so far. That is really what I have been doing. I am hoping that at some point down the line, when people look at my name alongside the list with Ornette, Braxton, Steve Lacy, and Cecil Taylor, they will not look at that and say, 'That was a huge mistake.' By the time I am gone or by the time I am their age when they received the prize, I can warrant my name being included in there and that I have accomplished something. I have a long time to try and work towards that. I definitely don't wake up in the morning and say, 'Oh, I am a genius and let me do more genius work today.' The MacArthur Foundation was very clear when they gave me the prize that generally they award it to people who have accomplished a great amount in their lifetime and have made major contributions to their areas of expertise and in your case, they wanted to see what would happen if someone received the prize towards the beginning of their career and how it may or may not affect their decision making and where it may bring them and enable them to do if they had economic resources that otherwise wouldn't be there. In a way, they made it clear that it was an experiment and hopefully, I will prove that the experiment was worth the effort.

AAJ: And earlier in your career, I was banging my head against the wall with all the Eric Dolphy references. Have people gotten over that?

KV: (Laughing) It is funny that you mentioned that, Fred. I haven't seen it in a while, so I guess people have, you know you play bass clarinet and everybody says Dolphy and on one level, it is understandable and Dolphy has had a huge impact on my playing. His use of interval motion has been really, really important to the way I thought about playing the saxophones and clarinets. There is no question that he has had a major influence on me. To say that I sound like Eric Dolphy is kind of nuts. When I see Dolphy's name, it is always in reference to my bass clarinet playing and I think that is because nobody knows anybody who plays bass clarinet, just because they haven't spent time to look at who does the work on it. David Murray has been playing bass clarinet. Hans Koch has been playing bass clarinet. There is a lot of other people. Br'tzmann's played bass clarinet. All those kinds of things get warn out. You can't keep saying those things forever. You have to find something new to talk about, so they will find something else to complain about with me (laughing). It is like with the Dolphy thing, I think it is kind of the same. They have used that up.

AAJ: Another knock on you has been you propensity to play with Europeans.

KV: They are great musicians over there. It is pretty simple. I think some of the best players in the world are in Europe now and in Japan. I haven't been fortunate enough to work with too many people from Japan, but I think that, to me, when I look at the history of jazz in the broadest sense of what that might mean. I am not just thinking of swing or this and that. I am thinking of improvised impulse that came out of Black-America concepts of music. To me, up until the Seventies, there is no question that the major, major innovators in the music have been Black-Americans and there is a few exceptions, guys like Charlie Haden, Jimmy Guiffre, Pee Wee Russell, but generally speaking, the major innovators, you can't make an argument against the fact that they have been Black-Americans. After the late Sixties, I think you can make an argument that there have been major innovations that have happened in the music and they've come from Europe, people like Derek Bailey or Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, Paul Lytton, Paul Lovens, Misha Mengelberg. There is a long list of very, very significant European players who, for my ears, have really affected the course of music and I think that in the United States, there is a tendency to think that the music is still centered in New York City and that all the best music comes from the United States. I think that is just, to be frank, is just a set of ignorance on the part of people not being aware of what is going on now in 2003 with the music. There is great music coming out of New York and it is fantastic, but there is no center anymore. I think the center is a connective set of communication that runs across the globe and the scene isn't in one city. The scene is the collective of people that you work with internationally or nationally, depending on where you live or how you work. So for me to not work with European musicians is to cut myself off from some of the major creative work that is being done in the music that I am involved with, that is happening now, and that just doesn't make any sense to me at all. So yeah, Fred, I definitely work with a lot of Europeans because there is a lot of music there for me to examine and discover.

AAJ: Can an artist be true to the art while still maintaining a commercial viability?

KV: Oh, yeah, for sure. Look at Miles Davis. Look at Duke Ellington. I think it is totally possible to do that. I think it is also incredibly difficult to do that. I think that one of the main things that I have been preoccupied with is that very issue. I don't think that there is a badge of honor to being obscure and I think there is a lot of people who are involved in this music who feel that way. There is a lot of musicians who do not see the unfortunate necessity of being a business person connected to the music and every time that I talk about finances and talk about business and talk about trying to get the media to understand the music in a broader sense, people really bock at it. They get, in some cases, very angry about it and I think it is usually connected to the belief that I am trying to make commercial concessions to become famous. If I wanted to be famous, there is a lot of other things I could do that would make it a lot easier to be famous than work in this music.

I think that, to me, the music I play doesn't belong in some kind of cultural ghetto. The music that I play and the people that I work with belong in a visible way amongst the other people doing serious cultural work right now. The truth of it is we are in a position where very, very few people are aware of what we do and the responsibility to change that falls on us. It falls on the musicians. It falls on us to work with the presenters and the media and with other musicians and record labels to help position what we do, in the music listener's viewpoint, as being a viable thing, connected to their life, in this time. The problem is that many people see jazz as being connected to something that has nothing to do with them. There is a huge number of reasons for that and many of those reasons actually come out of the jazz media and jazz musicians in general. There is a very elitist attitude attached to some people involved in this music on different levels. There truth of it is that hurts the music because it is music and if it is music, it belongs, potentially, to anybody who has a set of ears, who wants to listen.

My motivation has really been, in many ways, to expand the audience through touring, performing, trying to get the music out to people, being willing to talk to people about it and help them see that if you like Fugazi or if you like Sonic Youth, you can like the Peter Br'tzmann Tentet. You can like The Vandermark 5. You can like any of this music that we work with because like the stuff that they may be familiar with, it is music about serious passion and commitment to being creative. That is something that any single person, if they have even a mildly open mind, can receive in a performance context and so I perform a lot and try to make a big effort to try to go to places and play to people all over the work and be willing to play in any context that will enable me to work with people in a situation where we can be creative. The problem is that when you start talking that way, people think that you are just jabbing away and what you are really trying to do is tone down and dumb down the work that you are doing and that is just bullshit. I don't think that anybody has to make a commercial concession to reach a wider audience.

The issue becomes how to you present the music in a way that people's curiosity will motivate them to want to seek it out or want to go to it if it comes to their town or their city. I make absolutely no changes whatsoever at anything that I do musically on the basis that I think it might be more successful with audiences. I play a huge range of music and all the music I play is completely connected to my belief in it. So a band like Spaceways Incorporated plays music that is definitely influenced by funk and reggae, but it is also influenced by free jazz and that all makes sense to me and it makes sense to the people that have actually heard the band. There is not some big discussion about how those kinds of music can't be side by side and that is because when we play it, we believe in it. We are not trying to do funk because hopefully, we do five funk tunes and then we can slip in a Sun Ra tune and maybe educate somebody. That is just a really elitist, stupid point of view as far as I am concerned. To me, Sun Ra's music belongs alongside Funkadelic and it makes sense alongside one of my tunes or Nate McBride's tunes. Cecil Taylor's music makes sense alongside a Vandermark 5 tune. It is all this amazing, vibrant, creative, living music that belong to our time and in our time, it makes sense to make the effort to expose people to it because there is so much crap out there.

I think the music is strong enough to withstand any impact from any side. I don't understand what people are afraid of. We are talking about numbers. No record is going to sell a million copies. I don't believe that for a minute. We're talking about records, maybe five thousand. If you sell five thousand records in the improvised music world, that is like a triple platinum album. What I am saying is that there are more than five thousand people who could receive this music and be excited about it. That is what I am looking for and I think that is a completely legitimate and completely important thing to do because the people who don't see it that way, what is their argument against it?


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