Jazz Institute of Chicago

Chicagoan Ken Vandermark awarded MacArthur Fellowship

Chicagoan Ken Vandermark awarded
MacArthur Fellowship
by Michael Witt

Sublime and unanticipated, the MacArthur Foundation has been tapping people on the shoulder and rewarding their hard work and creativity since they began their fellowship program in 1981. In June, out of the blue, they telephoned Chicago-area saxophone and clarinet player, composer, and band-leader, Ken Vandermark with the good news: he will receive a $265,500 fellowship grant over the next five years—no strings attached. Vandermark joins the company of jazz greats Max Roach, Ornette Coleman, Steve Lacy, and Anthony Braxton who have received the award in past years. He is the only musician in this year's cadre of thirty-two fellows. He is modest about his accomplishment:
The musicians on that list...they’re all idols of mine. To even be in the same sentence with those guys blows me away. When they were my age, they were changing the face of the music. I feel an obligation to try to push myself to aspire to do something like that...it’s pretty amazing to be included in that list.

Since he graduated from McGill University and moved to Chicago from Boston in the late eighties, he has established himself as the common denominator and defacto ambassador of improvised music in the city.

I'm interested in a wide range of music. To me, the way that I learn is by directly dealing with the material.

In this year alone, Vandermark has played in different bands with Fred Van Hove, Misha Mengelberg, Paul Lovens, Peter Brötzmann, Big John Patton, Paul Lytton, and too many others to list.

Those guys are like masters at what they do. You know, I feel like I'm a novice. And so, when you get to play with Paul Lytton and deal directly at the level he works at, hopefully you don't embarrass yourself. You're just thrust into this maelstrom of information that he's developed. He works with these languages and vocabularies—and then the next time you turn around, you're playing with like John Patton, who's got a whole different set of requirements. It forces you to learn at an incredible rate. I mean, it's like, man, I'm sitting on stage, looking at Paul Lytton play, and then a couple weeks later, to be on stage with someone like John Patton, and being in a position to work with both of those guys—I can't believe it.

Part of Vandermark's charm is his humility. He is quick to give credit to his fellow musicians and other people who support the Chicago improv scene. One of his busier bands, the Vandermark 5, has dedicated every composition on each of their three albums to various friends and influences including local artist Dan Grzeca, keyboardist Jim Baker, and frequent collaborator, saxophonist Mats Gustafsson.

In any given month, you can hear Vandermark play in Chicago venues like the Empty Bottle or the Nervous Center with literally a dozen different bands. His onstage demeanor is gracious, almost to the point of being diminutive. When he is improvising with a group, you can observe him listening and interacting with the other players, building on their ideas as well as making his own bold, original statements.
But don't get the wrong idea: he may joke that he’s simply good with a phone and getting people together to jam, but as a player, Vandermark is a powerhouse. His playing is dynamic to the point of schizophrenia, changing gears at a maddening pace—from rhythmic melodies and soulful depths to wonderfully noisy avant-garde scronking and screeching.

Improvising music and the paradox of composing for improvisers lies at the heart of Vandermark’s journey.

I feel there's kind of a lack of real creative writing going on. There are exceptions, definitely, but if you look at the number of records that come out with...'compositions designed for improvisation' I find that the ratio of interesting records to bad records is pretty small. If you're writing music for improvisers, you have the issue of writing music where the material inspires the improvisers to push themselves in a direction they might not go of their own volition. So that means that the compositions have an unfinished quality to them, because the improviser is necessary to fulfill the needs of the piece.

Now I feel like when I listen to a record and it's over, often there's no relationship or very little relationship between the composition and the improviser. The compositions are completely unmemorable. And that's not that they need to be super-complicated or involved, but it's like they're not relevant. You can take the compositions off and just leave the improvisation, and you don't have any different sense of perspective. That, to me, is a failure on the part of the writer to make music that inspires the improvisers to work within a certain set of parameters.

His three primary groups cover what Vandermark describes as the most essential ways that he’s interested in working. The DKV Trio with percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist Kent Kessler is famous for their hour-long, entirely improvised jams. The Vandermark 5 achieves a more orchestrated sound with Kessler, Tim Mulvenna on drums, Dave Rempis on alto saxophone, and Jeb Bishop on guitar and trombone. The popular quintet is an outlet for what Vandermark calls his "most interesting and complex" writing with only "about 80%" of the music being improvisation based on the compositions.

Apparently, listeners agree because V5’s sophomore recording, "Target Or Flag," topped last year’s Cadence magazine reader’s poll as the best album of the year. Finally, Vandermark places his collaboration with the Swedish AALY Trio (Mats Gustafsson on reeds, Peter Janson on bass, and Kjell Nordeson on drums) somewhere between the DKV Trio and V5 on the spectrum of composition and improvisation.

Vandermark is going to invest half of the grant to sustain himself and continue releasing recordings after the five years of his fellowship are over.

It’s pretty crucial to me to document the ideas that we have and that we’re working on...there have been a few projects in the can with Okkadisk for a while that I really want to get released.

His press sheets say that it’ll be nice to afford a motel room when he tours instead of sleeping on floors, and that he’ll be able to pay his bandmates better, "to continue what we’re doing without losing our shirts."

In a recent interview at the Velvet Lounge he mentions a long list of people with whom the grant will enable him to record and tour—musicians like Paul Lovens, Johannes Bauer, and Joe McPhee. At the top of this list is a powerful tentet led by German free jazz stalward Peter Brötzmann that puts Vandermark on an international all-star team of improvisers including Gustafsson, Toshinori Kondo, and William Parker with locals Kessler, Bishop, Drake, Fred Longberg-Holm, and Michael Zerang.

It’s through activity that more things happen, and if people see the validity and possibility of this music being a reality—and I'm not saying that it's accessible, because it's difficult and challenging music—but it's a viable form of expression—a viable form of communication—to create more opportunities for those things to happen would be the best possible thing to do with the money.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Vandermark 5 performs regularly at the Empty Bottle. The Chicago Bridge Unit (Vandermark with Mulvenna and Kessler) will be playing every Sunday night in August at the Goose Island Brewery on North Clybourn Street. Ray Anderson and Hamiet Bluiett will be sitting in with the DKV Trio on Sunday, September 5, at this year's JazzFest.

His most recent album, Vandermark 5's Simpatico, was released on the Atavistic label on June 8th, and a double-live album from the DKV Trio is expected from Okkadisk in the fall. Other upcoming recordings include a trio with Vandermark, Lytton, and Kessler and a collaboration with Boston guitarist Joe Morris.

Michael Witt, a cousin of the late trumpeter Bill Chase, is the Integrated Systems Manager of an Indiana trucking company. He moonlights as a writer and recording engineer. You can reach him by email at mwitt@schilli.com. The watercolor on the home page and at top right is copyright ©1999 by Lou Wilkinson.

Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.

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