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Ken Vandermark: Returning To The Road With A New Band And New Energy

Ken Vandermark: Returning To The Road With A New Band And New Energy

Courtesy John Sharpe

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How fortunate I am and what a privilege it is to go out to play became very clear in 2020 and 2021, and I'm not going to forget that. I never took it for granted, but certainly now it's more precious than ever.
—Ken Vandermark
For three decades, Ken Vandermark has criss-crossed the globe as one of music's most restless and exploratory improvisors. Yet as he embarked on a tour in Spring 2023, his improvisatory skills were put to the test—not as a musician, but as a bandleader and organizer.

He assembled a new band, Edition 55, that includes some of the most adventurous young musicians on the Chicago scene: Lily Finnegan on drums, tubist Beth McDonald, cellist Katinka Kleijn and bassist Nick Macri.

The lives of jazz musicians have always been provisional, but perhaps never more so than in the early 2020s. Yet as circumstances arose on the eve of the 2023 tour, Vandermark responded as great improvisors always do: decisively, in the moment with an eye toward creating beauty.

All About Jazz spoke with him about the returning to the road, the evolution of the Chicago scene, the dynamics of leading a multi-generational band and the challenges and rewards of creating in the age of COVID.

All About Jazz: What particular challenges has this 2023 tour presented?

Ken Vandermark: I've been trying to organize a new working band which would be able to tour, ideally, in the United States and Europe each year and do some recordings and concert tours. That was one of the preliminary asks on my part for the band, just to know if I could accomplish what I wanted to in terms of performances. And due to some very unforeseen and challenging circumstances both for Katinka and Nick , they would not be able to go on the tour in April which had already been booked for Edition 55 and are basically not really able to do the kind of touring that I want to do. So after talking things through the band, the decision has been to continue with that lineup, but that I would reorganize the group and reconfigure it into a model that could accomplish the concert schedule I wanted to have.

That shifted it to Edition Redux with erez dessel on keyboards. So there was a big change and a lot of discussion, and ironically, the change has proven to be incredibly inspiring. I thought it would work out well, but obviously, working in this quartet lineup has enabled the tuba aspects of the compositions to really speak more clearly. The range of sounds that we have access to through the keyboard is a small orchestra, which is what I was hoping for. So going forward, I'll do a sextet ensemble that includes Katinka and Nick, and with Erez on keyboards as well, and obviously Lily and Beth.

AAJ: Having to adapt to conditions on the fly seems like a skill that all bandleaders—maybe all musicians—have had to develop lately.

KV: Everyone's been making a bunch of adjustments in the last couple of years—I wouldn't say post-COVID because we're still dealing with a lot of repercussions and a lot of illness still connected to COVID—to move to a more regular concert kind of situation. Last year, 2022, was one of constant adjustments for tour possibilities, cancellations, travel cancellations and the beginning of [2023] is kind of like that too.

So I'm thankful that people have really been willing to be flexible and make adjustments and try to get music to happen, even if it's not the original intention, yet broadening out and trying different things and getting new things to happen, which is great.

AAJ: Are you among the 99.5% of musicians who feel that touring can happen again and can't wait to get back on the road?

KV: Oh, yeah. I started regular touring, so to speak, at least on paper, in the autumn of 2021 and last year was, strangely, I think the busiest concert year I've ever had—and it wasn't stuff that was booked as follow-up or replacements to cancelled tours and concerts that happened in 2020 and earlier in 2021. It was all new work, new tours, new groups. It was extremely busy, which was fantastic.

And as things progressed, the audiences were coming back more and more. I had really excellent audiences since I've started playing again after the main COVID period, which has been fantastic. I know that a lot of presenters and musicians have said that the audiences were about 50% of what they had been in 2019, but everybody's seeing a resurgence of attendance and people coming out to shows.

So there really is, I would say at this point, a sense of reinvigoration with the scene as a whole, both from the standpoint of the musicians, the presenters, the audience, being able to make records again, manufacturing—the whole ecosystem seems to be much, much healthier now. It's still quite chaotic though. You know, I'm still having trouble with tours being booked and then canceled. That happened to me both June and August of [2023]. I had tours in Europe scheduled in those months and they were canceled for different reasons, a lot of which I don't really understand. So then you have to try to reorganize things around that.

But concerts get booked so far in advance at this point, between a year, a year and a half in some cases, especially overseas. So when you lose concerts in June and you find out in March, it's a real blow. We're still in a stage of challenge with music and making it happen, but things are definitely improving and really exciting.

And to answer your fundamental question, to be back playing concerts after a year and a half of sitting in my place in Chicago after being on tour half a year for like 20 years straight is just incredible. It's just absolutely incredible.

And it's not just the music aspect. I would say the primary thing, getting to collaborate with friends and musicians and seeing them and working with them and developing the music, that's the most essential part. But not being able to play for a year and a half with other people and seeing other people, the whole social aspect of the music, which is so important, like going to a concert, being on stage with other people, seeing other people, talking to other people, sharing the music, the whole thing, that aspect was even more clear to me than it had been before. How fortunate I am and what a privilege it is to go out to play became very clear in 2020 and 2021, and I'm not going to forget that. I never took it for granted, but certainly now it's more precious than ever.

AAJ: In many ways, Chicago seems to have the most vibrant scene and most interesting music scene in the U.S. and lately it seems like one reason for that vibrancy is the pool of younger players who are doing really different and exciting things there. Can you comment on the state of the Chicago scene and the effect of younger players on what's already a really great music scene?

KV: I would agree 100%. I was really lucky to come to Chicago when I did in 1989. Early in the '90s, and I'd say throughout that decade, the scene in Chicago was truly extraordinary from the music side, from the presenter side, the audience side—every aspect of the music, the writers, the college radio support. Part of what made it so exciting was that the boundary lines or the categories or the demarcation points between different kinds of genres and music really disappeared and there was a lot of cross-pollination between the rock scene, noise scenes, jazz scenes, improvised music scenes.

One of the visible and well-known results of that might be the band Tortoise, which incorporated a lot of people from all those different scenes in one band. But that was the norm here and it made for an incredibly vital music scene in terms of the interaction between different kinds of artists and the awareness of what was going on with all those different people. AMM played during that decade in Chicago and the place was packed and most of the people in the audience were musicians and they were from every part of the overall music scene in Chicago. Everyone came out to see a very abstract experimental improvising group, and the energy and excitement about that was palpable. And that happened for years here. From my point of view, in the 2000s, a lot of changes took place.

Even though the improvised music scene here has remained extremely vital, I think from my point of view, things kind of coalesced back into the various types of scenes. The jazz and improvised music scene started, it had expanded, there were more opportunities to play, there was a lot of richness there, and so it was looking at itself, just developing things within itself as opposed to going so much to the noise scene or the rock scene and vice versa. That was not happening as often.

Luckily during that period I was doing more and more touring and work in Europe and finding people who worked outside of the field that I'm directly involved with or associated with, and I was able to collaborate with people in the electronic music world and whatnot. So for me, things kept interpenetrating between different kinds of aesthetics.

What I'm seeing now I've noticed because I was away a lot. I live in Chicago, but as I said, I'm on tour usually like half the year. And when I come home, I'm not performing as much as I used to. I just to try to recover and think about what I'm going to do next. So my interaction with the Chicago scene also changed later in the new millennium. But I definitely saw around 2015 a resurgence of this kind of cross-pollination between genres and music scenes in Chicago, and that was driven almost exclusively by the younger musicians here.

I saw developments in the different scenes primarily through my band Marker, which was the first group I put together where everybody in the band was way younger than me. Many of them were like half my age and so I was seeing stuff going on through their work, because I was curious about what they were doing, who they were listening to, etc. So that was an entrée into more awareness about what the younger scene was doing and what it was about. They were totally interested in cross-pollinating things. Coupled with that, there was a lot more activity from the new music scene, the new composition scene in Chicago with more players from that scene working with improvisers and vice versa.

And when COVID hit, everything got frozen, so to speak. A lot of people who were just starting to play, the breaks were put on their activity because of the pandemic. It was a crisis for more than music, but just to discuss music, it really impacted music globally. What I've seen coming out on the other side of it—and definitely with this group, Edition Redux where everybody's in their 20s aside from me; I think Beth might be 30, I'm not sure about that because I don't really ask, but yeah, they're even more focused and disciplined than the crew of people I was seeing who were younger, pre-pandemic. I think part of it is just the nature of how they are as people.

But to the point of the earlier discussion about coming back and getting the opportunity to work again after the main COVID period. I think that they're very aware of that. When COVID hit they were in their very early 20s just starting to play. And now they've got a chance to go out and play gigs and they're totally tearing it up.

So the younger musicians in Chicago have added a whole 'nother level of energy and creative energy. They have their own set of ideas. They're playing with different kinds of bands like Lily. She's in a punk rock group. She's got her own ensemble. She's a composer and playing in [Edition Redux] too and doing all kinds of things. Same thing with Erez. Same thing with Beth McDonald.

There are people working in different fields of music and bringing all that knowledge and energy to this particular project and everything else they're doing. So there's no question that the Chicago scene is very vibrant right now, and a lot of that credit goes to the young players here.

AAJ: So you're saying that the young players in 2023 are perceptually a bit different than the young players were in 2019, just four years ago? Those four years have been hugely consequential in world and cultural history, but have they also been that cataclysmic for the music?

KV: For my sample, yeah.

AAJ: How so?

KV: Well, I think what I'm seeing now is things start to move toward the ability to work the way people could work in 2019 and before that.

Speaking personally, to be within walking distance of where I live in Chicago for a year and a half, after traveling around the world every single year for months on end, I don't know what that did to me. But I can tell you that to get through that mentally and emotionally, I had to shut down an awful lot of things not to lose my mind.

I was fortunate. Like there was enough income coming into the household. My partner is a pediatrician. So she was on the front line of everything that was happening, taking care of kids and dealing with COVID directly in hospitals. The income from her profession meant that we were able to get through COVID without the economic stress of most people.

I was lucky. We have a big space, so we weren't in a tiny flat or apartment. I could get out and walk around. I was able to do things. I was very busy on different kinds of music projects, just not performing.

But even though I had it very, very good under those conditions, man, I don't even know how that impacted me. And I was somebody who had been doing this music, the music I've been involved with for decades.

So if you're 22, 20 years old, 18, whatever, just starting out, just getting out of university, conservatory, you're just starting to become active as an individual in the scene, playing shows, organizing concerts and tours, and everything freezes. Coming out on the other side of that, the social impact on young people, they don't even understand it yet, and they're not going to. I mean, the kinds of psychological damage that COVID had on kids and young adults I can speak directly to just from what I saw through my partner's work in hospitals. So the players that were that age when this hit have been impacted in ways that no one understands.

So I think that the repercussions of COVID are going to be far reaching and I think the response I'm seeing in younger players, at least the people I'm working with and seeing perform in Chicago and elsewhere, they are so intensely inspired and driven and disciplined. It's awe-inspiring.

Maybe it's the people that I'm seeing. Maybe it's the kind of scene I'm involved with. But I'm incredibly inspired by what I'm seeing and hearing from younger players. Their devotion and energy could be, based on my own feelings about playing, in response to the loss of everything, both in terms of human life, social life, creative life in that two-year period. There's no question that what I'm seeing and hearing is incredible right now, and I'm really fortunate to have this group together where I'm the oldest person in the band and these younger players are kicking my ass. I mean, it's fantastic.

AAJ: A lot of music right now is being made with great focus and determination and urgency. There's so much creativity and so much beauty in the world as a result of the last couple of years. So perhaps this is kind of a golden age, Eliot's "lilacs out of the dead land," right? What have you learned from these younger players? What have they brought to your music and to your own playing?

KV: Well, I think one thing that's really fantastic is that I want to investigate a huge range of music.

I work with improvisation as a method to work with materials in a spontaneous way, but my record collection is extremely eclectic. You know, there's a lot of jazz stuff in there. There's a lot of improvised music stuff in there, but there's tons of reggae. There's tons of music from Ethiopia. There's all kinds of funk. There's all kinds of rock, hip-hop stuff, new music, etc. I want to explore all those things in the music I compose. That's one of the things that drives me.

The players in this band, more than any other group—and I'm not just saying this because I'm working with them right now—have been able to deal with this range of interests I've got and come at it with depth immediately.

I can present a piece and maybe it's, for lack of a better description, a Cecil Taylor-type song. And they get it immediately. All of them have heard Cecil Taylor's music. They can get into those aesthetics, bring their own personal voice to it. So we're in there immediately working on those materials, dealing with the composition right away. And then the next piece might be kind of a funk groove with some kind of atonal melodic material on top of that. The whole point of the piece is to integrate these two perspectives and make them work and they can do it after playing the tune once, back-to-back with totally different kinds of aesthetics and mixing up aesthetics in one particular piece.

And I don't have to explain very much. You know, in the past I'd have to try to describe what I was trying to do or felt that I had to do that, and it would be like you're researching design. You're testing something out. You don't know if it's going to work.

You're trying to explain something with words to people about another kind of language: music, and within music there's many, many, many, many, many different kinds of languages. So you're trying to speak like 10 different languages with one group of people and talk about it in English hopefully to get the ideas across, and this pool of players are just coming back at it with their own with their own interpretations immediately. So much time is actually spent on developing and playing together as peers and less with me trying to direct the music and trying to convey it and explain it.

So that ability—and I'm not talking about skills because the younger musicians have way better skills than I ever had at their age and often, better skills than I have now—but rather their creative skills, interpretive skills, music skills, that ability means they're true musicians coming at the music with creative energy from the very beginning. I think it's a combination of being able to get to the music and off the page faster, their ability to work with a lot of different aesthetics simultaneously without it being strange.

Everything's open. Everything's possible, and that actually enables me to write more and more and more open-ended music. So I'm getting the ability to go into more compositional ideas than I ever had before and test out different kinds of things because they can deal with everything. So they're giving me tons of options that I would have to work a lot harder to get to before.

We're getting to stuff so fast! The amount of music I've written for this group in a very short period of time and having to work the original pieces that were for quintet, which included the cello and bass, to a quartet that includes keyboards, I mean, I thought I was going to have to throw out half the tunes. But we've been able to play all of them plus add new pieces to the batch because of the musicianship of these players. So it's like super liberating and freeing for me as a composer.

AAJ: As a player, has their ability and their creativity and how fast they've learned pushed you to up your game in terms of your reflexes and responses? You said some of these kids maybe play better than you do at this point. Have they pushed you as well as giving you the opportunity to push them?

KV: Oh yeah definitely, definitely. You know, they make me want to practice and that's the highest compliment.

Not to be presumptuous and not to put myself in the category of Miles Davis, I have a sense of it how Miles Davis might have felt when he put that quintet together with Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, because they were all way younger than him. And he was getting his ass kicked too, and that music is beautiful and exciting because of that combination of new ideas, new energy.

Miles Davis is one of the greatest bandleaders in history, and he rose to the occasion. So like I said, I'm not trying to be presumptuous and put myself in that category, but I definitely feel that sensation, and it's exciting.

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