Ken Vandermark: That Was Now

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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.

AAJ: Anything going on with Spaceways, Inc?

KV: Not really. It's kind of ironic, because Nate McBride's been living in Chicago for about a year now. It really gets down to the difficulty of trying to find and pin down Hamid Drake. I don't know if he's ever home, if he is he's probably hiding and trying to sleep. The guy works unbelievably hard, and most of that work is on tour. So, to try out new stuff with Spaceways, or DKV has been difficult just for trying to coordinate with Hamid, his schedule's so crazy.

Right now there aren't any plans, and that's why I'm instigating this new project in Norway, the Powerhouse Sound group. I really really love the funk and reggae genres of music and the possibilities that are there to try to coordinate stuff that would work in an improvising setting. So, this band is going to be a group designed to deal with those kind of rhythms and textures. That's part of the reason why that group got built, because I was extremely happy working with Nate and Hamid and the way that group worked, even as a trio. There was a lot we could get done. I don't want to leave that stuff finished, there's a lot more I'd like to try to explore with it, so I'm hoping the Powerhouse group will work out well that way.

AAJ: If "Knock Yourself Out from Alchemia is any measure, you still have a lot of funk in you.

KV: Oh yeah, there's a lot there to work with. There's a lot of ways to work with those rhythms, and I think you can take on the energy and the construction of the way the time and grooves work, and not box the players into a very rigid harmonic and form sensibility, so it's so repetitious and so circular that it gets bogged down into an inability to express more than just a very limited set of materials. I'm really interested in trying to work with the ideas of what attracts me rock music, or reggae, or funk. And what, out of those things that attract me, can motivate a starting place for improvisation, as opposed to just a static platform for improvisation. There's a lot to do with that.

There's a lot of freedom in that music. Just recently I watched a tv transcription of James Brown's concert in 1968 in Boston the day after Martin Luther King was shot, and that music is so free in so many ways. There are certain things that need to be accomplished for the material to be realized, but if you watch and follow the music, a lot of the forms are really open ended, and they're not based on a specific number of repetitions. The cues are coming off how long James Brown chooses to dance. How long he likes someone's solo, or this or that.

There's a real sense of tension and excitement in the way the band has to follow Brown's direction, because without that it would go into cruise control. He's really guiding these flexible forms, and I'm really really interested in the way he constructs stuff, and the possibilities in that to do stuff in music that's even more removed from what people would consider dance music, taking some of those characteristics and qualities and putting them into a situation where people can really range improvisationally with those materials.

There's a film clip I saw of one of my favorite records of his, a live concert from 1971 Paris, called Love, Power, Peace, and there's a moment at the beginning of the concert where the band shifts from one groove to another groove that is very loosely, maybe metrically associated, but it's basically a tape splice. It sounds like it's maybe an edited record, but it's done in real time by the band, and the cue for the change, I watched it over and over to figure what he was doing to cue, and it looks like he's just shaking his head, maybe moving his arm a little bit, but it's clear that's the cue. And everybody in the band makes it. It's like he hides these gestures so that audience will be completely blown away by these shifts the band could make, even though they aware of what they were look for. The kind of theatre involved with him is pretty powerful.

AAJ: It's like he's playing the band.

KV: Exactly. It is an unbelievably disciplined and very focused, structured set of principles they're working with, and one of things I find so interesting about that Love, Power, Peace album, with Bootsy Collins, Catfish Collins, and a whole crew of people he fired right after that. It's the one time I heard the band take over. The band is so burning, James Brown is still directing it, but there's a point at the beginning of the concert where he yells out, "Hang on! It's like it's for himself, because the band is pile-driving. Bootsy looks like he's twelve years old playing this monstrous bass.


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