Ken Vandermark: That Was Now

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Im really interested in trying to work with...what attracts me rock music, or reggae, or funk. And what...can motivate a starting place for improvisation, as opposed to just a static platform...
For almost a decade, the Vandermark 5 has been the main outlet for the diabolically driven and creative Ken Vandermark. Spreading his involvement across at least ten active and demanding musical enterprises, Vandermark's main outlet still remains the V5. This year for the third time in its history the quintet loses a founding member, this time trombone titan Jeb Bishop, who also joined Vandermark in several of his side projects, as well as maintaining side projects of his own.

Between trips to Iceland for performances with Peter Brotzmann's Tentet, and the mixing of a new Free Music Ensemble record, Vandermark graciously spent an hour cataloguing the progress of his various endeavours, including the future of the 5, his love affair with baritone sax, and where James Brown fits into his compositional conceptions.

All About Jazz: Any chance we'll be seeing you on the West Coast again soon?

Ken Vandermark: The West Cost is in the States, but it's almost as difficult financially to do a tour of the West Coast as it is to go to Europe, and there's a lot less gigs, which makes it kind of prohibitive. With funding circumstances in the states not nearly as good as they are in Europe at this point, it's kind of hard to swing getting out to the West Coast, unless there's some kind of festival situation. I just got a message, actually, from John Gilbreath who runs the earshot festival in Seattle and he's been trying to get me out there for a while in the fall, but I'm normally in Europe at that time. We could try to get that to work next year, I'll try to do a tour next year connected to that, and head south and try and get to California, and whatnot. I'd like to get out there more, there's some really great people out there to play to. It's a difficult swing.

AAJ: And how are the crowds in Oslo?

KV: Oh great, it's really one of my favorite cities. I love the place. It's really unbelievably expensive, but other than that it's a fantastic place. There's a lot of great musicians there, and the audiences are really opened minded and have heard a lot of stuff, and are really good people to play to.

AAJ: Is it a nice change for you, let someone else be in charge, playing in Brotzmann's band rather than your own?

KV: Yeah, yeah, I have to say Peter's a really great band leader. When we're in Europe in particular he deals with all the logistical stuff, so for me I get to be a sideman for a change. It's kind of a pleasure because I can just focus on trying to play as well as I can and not have to deal with all the logistics of the tour like I normally do. So, working with Peter is really great, really generous as a bandleader and as a person. He's great to play with. We had a tour of the Eastern United States, and were up in Canada in May, so we had about 11 gigs at that time, and couple more, so if we get a dozen gigs a year with a group that size, that's pretty good.

AAJ: It's amazing he's been able to keep that many musicians working for that long.

KV: It's a really, really strong testament to, if the music's good and the players have the right kind of attitude, almost anything's really possible to accomplish. I think, knowing a group that size, particularly trying to get to work in the States, no one's really making any money, but everyone's making some really great music and getting so much out of that experience. People ask about that, 'How can you deal with the finances with the kind of thing you do?' Sometimes, financially, it is a bit difficult. But if you take into account what we get from what we do, and think about different ways of looking at the idea of being paid, you know, we're pretty wealthy in a way. We play the kind of music we want with really great people who are also committed, get to travel and present things we do all around the world. I feel really fortunate to be able to do it.

AAJ: Do you ever get to take the Territory Band on the road?

KV: Funny you asked that. A couple years ago we did the Berlin Jazz Festival, and played in Sweden, and Oslo. Now, we're going to back for the first time since then to Europe in October play a music festival. I thing we have five or six concerts, and we'll be doing a new recording while we're over there. It'll be the first extensive trip we've gotten with that group. Being able to hold that band together for several years now with that particular group of players is really great. There's been small changes in the line up but the core people have been really committed to working on it.

AAJ: Is the Chicago scene as hot as it was when you came up?

KV: Well, in a lot of ways it's a lot hotter than when I was coming up, because the situation then, there wasn't so many places to play. I kinda found the scene at the end of the '80s, beginning of the '90s to be a bit fractured in some ways. There were people in town playing but they didn't work together all the time. Now, the scene is so scattered around, but there's a lot more cross pollination than when I first got here and there's more places to play. There's the issue of what Fred Anderson's going to do with the Velvet Lounge, because he's gotta move. There's been some benefit concerts for him to try to get money to help him make the change, but I think the estimate was that he needed $100,000, and I think they've raised about $20,000, which is good on the one hand, but not nearly enough to pay for that change. So, he's still really optimistic about it and planning on making the shift.

Even with that sort of in jeopardy, and another performance space that's been important and may have to move or shut down, the scene is much more stable than it was when I first got here. Everything's always in flux. I think it points to the fact that the scene's pretty deep right now in terms of the age of the players, there's lots of musicians working and performing regularly who are in their 20's, then you've got people like Fred Anderson, Robert Berry, Von Freeman, in their 70's, maybe 80's now, that's a good feeling. People seem very motivated to try find ways to make performance possibilities work and happen. It's not all on one person's shoulders, that's really crucial.


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