Ken Vandermark: Raw and Refined

Shawn McGrew By

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It took me a long time to figure out that Cecil Taylor's music had conventionally notated material involved. —Ken Vandermark
Sometimes stumbling blocks and dumb luck can lead to a more satisfyingly final presentation than if everything went as originally planned. This was intended to be a phone interview from the outset, however equipment failures combined with difficult scheduling conspired to turn this into an email interview.

Despite Ken's Herculean effort to key paragraph after paragraph into a tiny BlackBerry keypad, it became difficult for him to keep track and the written word (anybody's) lacks a certain visceral flavor of the personality behind the words. Fortunately Ken agreed to another phone conversation and as a result, the reader is now presented with two sides of Ken; one represented by transcribed spoken language from January 20, 2006, and the other appears as supplemental email Q&A. Email material predates the phone conversation and is indicated by "AAJ-e" and "KV-e" to help differentiate between what's what. Also of note; while I heard Ken very clearly during our phone conversation, our connection was such that Ken sometimes strained to hear me.

A tremendous "Thank You" to Ken for willing to see this interview through.

Chapter Index

Sound and Texture
Personnel Changes
Making a Tour Happen
The Live Versus Recorded Experience
The Territory Band and FME
Listener Conceptions
The Paradox of Inspiration
Appreciating Dissonance and Chaos
The Rigors of Touring
Music with Hyphenated Feelings
Changing Subjectivity
Wynton Marsalis
Invention Versus Discovery
Beauty in Free Jazz
Who Do You Play For?
Selected Discography

Sound and Texture

All About Jazz: How did today's rehearsal go?

Ken Vandermark: Oh it was good. We're getting ready to work on a tour with the Vandermark 5 in North America and I've written some new pieces in the last few weeks to try on the tour, so we'll have a few more new things to present. It's real interesting having Fred [Lonberg-Holm] in the band and finding new ways to work with the group and the instrumentation; it's been great.

AAJ: Every member of the band is exceptionally versatile—switching from a percussive role to a more melodic one, and then into a textural mode at a moment's notice—and yet there's a consistent feel or approach that runs through your work.

KV: Yeah, the idea of the group in the beginning was to just have a small, or smaller, ensemble that could have the largest possible orchestral and stylistic possibilities. Even with the personnel changes that have happened in the last, almost ten years, that initial idea has really been true to the conception of the band throughout its history. So having Fred...the interest in asking him to join the group was connected to that. As a cellist and the way he approaches the instrument, the band can move into a lot of new music, chamber ensemble possibilities more dramatically than before. It also gives a chance to dip into, I don't know, more processed types of electronic sounds that Fred can deal with which we had to abandon when Jeb Bishop stopped playing electric guitar. So it's given us a very broad range of stylistic shifts that from piece to piece, or within pieces that in some ways is more dramatic than before.

AAJ: In the opening of "Killing Floor," the first track on Territory Band 4's Company Switch, there's a sound that's hard to pin down. It might be a horn blown with extended techniques, or maybe a horn filtered electronically.

KV: That's one of the interesting things about that particular group and why I want to have the ensemble be an electro-acoustic group. Because the way that Keven Drumm worked with the band in the initial stages and now Lasse Marhaug has been working with the band, their textural and sonic capabilities have a tendency just to almost unconsciously push a lot of the players into areas of sound that they maybe wouldn't normally gravitate to in a normal acoustic environment. And also, with the use of extended techniques...the horn players and the string players in the group, and blending that with the electronics, it does give this ambiguity about where the sound sources are that creates, maybe, an added level of tension to the way the music is developed and constructed.

AAJ: Have you ever taken heat for incorporating electronic into an otherwise acoustic band?

KV: No that's never been a problem. I mean, people have asked why I've chosen to do that and it's always been out of curiosity and expanding the, the pallet of sounds but no one's ever complained. In the earlier period of the Vandermark 5 there were certain people who weren't happy that there was electric guitar involved in the music, and then I think that even dissipated after a certain point. It was clear that I was interested in working in a broader range of ideas than whatever "free jazz" is defined as. But that was the only time that there was a sort of like, a criticism of like, well why...the band sounds like a rock band on this tune, this isn't jazz. Sorry but there's a lot of music to play and this is part of it. But as far as electronics go; no.

AAJ-e: There are times when your tenor and baritone almost sound like a distorted guitar. Do other instrumental timbres influence your sound, your personal conception?

KV-e: About half of the sonic possibilities on the reed instruments I play are associated with conventional pitch. That leaves a lot of room for other sounds. Why not explore them too. I'm extremely curious about different kinds of music, different methods of organizing sound. I want to integrate all of the things I hear that are exciting and find out if I can get them to work in an improviser's context. All of this means that trying to expand the range of timbral possibilities on the horns is just a natural extension of my musical interests, and those of the artists before me. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Personnel Changes

AAJ: Why wasn't another horn man chosen to replace Jeb Bishop?

KV: There's a few reasons for that. One was when we decided to continue the group [Vandermark 5] after Jeb left, we considered the idea of whether the band should only be comprised of Chicago musicians or make it international potentially, you know, and work with people from outside of Chicago or even the United States. We decided it would be better to keep the group tied to Chicago just in terms of the potential to rehearse and work on material even if there weren't concerts scheduled or tours scheduled. Because even thought the group isn't playing in Chicago nearly as nearly much as it did when it first started, we've been able to get together and rehearse because the musicians are here, when they're not on tour. It just gives a lot more flexibility to organizing the music and learning it and, and checking things out.

So when we decided to keep the group centered on Chicago, that led us to the idea of not having another horn player replace Jeb. It didn't make any sense to me to have another reed player join the group and there are some strong reed players in Chicago and to have a trombone player, there really wasn't somebody that came to mind that had the diverse possibilities that Jeb has in his playing. Jeb's a very, very strong player you know, he can read basically anything that I would write for him. He has a huge range of technical and melodic kinds of conceptions that he can apply, and the only other musicians in Chicago that play the brass instruments...at this point that would maybe be appropriate for a group like the Vandermark 5, are quite a bit younger and less experienced than Jeb was. Basically everybody in the band is almost a leader in their own right so we really felt the need to put somebody in the band that would not replace Jeb, but replace his abilities as an individual, you know. And that meant, that was part of the reason to move away from a horn player.

Considering keeping it to Chicago and considering who we're going to put in there, very quickly the idea of asking Fred Lonberg-Holm to join came up because he's really one of the strongest players on the scene in general, not just in Chicago but internationally. He lives here, he would add a real change to the band which has proven true since we've been working with him. Losing Jeb was very difficult but the changes have been extremely positive. I think I can speak for the whole band in saying that we miss having his involvement with the group. But if we're going to have to make a change like that, having Fred join has been quite successful and very exciting.

AAJ: And if another horn man was chosen instead, he'd likely have to manage insufferable comparisons to Jeb. Going with Fred was pretty shrewd.

KV: Thanks.

AAJ: I'm looking forward to hearing what Fred does with the band and I just know you've something up your sleeve that will surprise anybody who has certain expectations.

KV: Yeah well, that's the idea [laughs].

AAJ: Axel Doerner marked a return to the Territory Band with Company Switch. Did he relocate to Chicago?

KV: Well, I would say about half the band isn't based in Chicago, you know? There's a lot of players from Europe, Axel being one of them, but of course Paul Lytton, Paal Nilssen-Love, Lasse Marhaug and Fredrik Ljungkvist. There is a good percentage of the group that's comprised of Europeans, Per-Ake Holmlander for example, also from Stockholm like Fredrik. The idea with the Territory Band was to put a group together of players that were maybe the most interesting to me to work with in a large ensemble format no matter where they were from. Whether they were from Chicago or, obviously, Europe or any of the musicians that I knew, and not try and be restricted by any kind of limitations in terms of expense of putting the group together or distance—because initially the group was organized around the availability of the MacArthur prize money.

That was definitely one of the things that the money was put to use for was developing the Territory Band project. Now that the money's gone, one of the creative challenges I have is trying to figure out how to continue working with the group on an on-going basis. Thankfully there have been ways to do that. The ensemble got invited to play the Dionysian festival in Germany in October and that led to a European tour and recording schedule which worked out quite well, with Johannes Bauer playing trombone with the group, and that worked great. And then in the summer of this year, August 2006, the band is planning on doing a project, with Fred Anderson as a guest artist with a group which would be the first time the group's ever done something like that. So I've been able to find ways to keep the thing moving forward, and that'll be an on-going challenge for me because I've got a lot of interest in continuing to explore a large format-type of organization and orchestration for the music. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Making a Tour Happen

AAJ: It sound like it takes a festival invitation to make a tour happen.

KV: Yeah that's very true, I mean initially when the MacArthur money was there, I could bring the group into Chicago and we could rehearse and do some concerts with small groups and the large group, and do some recording. That was the way the thing started but in the future it's really going to be necessary to find ways to interest presenters who have some serious funding. I mean, the group runs around 11 or 12 people and they're scattered in Europe and in Chicago so it takes quite a bit of money just to get the travel organized. And on top of that you have the fees for the artists, for the rehearsal time and for the performance time—and recordings if that can work out—so there's no question that it takes a presenter with funding to do that and that usually means festivals.

This means work in the United States is quite limited because the festivals that present improvised music tend to be fairly conservative in their interests musical interests. The festival work I've done in North America has been in Canada, it's either been in Vancouver or in Victoriaville outside Montreal, but the festivals in the United States so far haven't really seemed interested in the kind of work I do. Which means the odds are good that the Territory Band won't have the opportunity to perform outside of Chicago anytime in the near future.

AAJ: That's a sad state of affairs, but I'm just glad you can keep the band going.

KV: [laughs] Yeah, at this point that's what I'm shooting for! So as long as I can do that, maybe there will be a change in the future where there will be more of a chance for the group to play in the U.S. class="f-right"> Return to Index...


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