Throughout his prolific career, Ken Vandermark has led or collaborated in ensembles of every size–from large groups like his Territory Band, to duo settings like the one he will present in Madison. It’s in these duo settings, I would argue, that we see one of the most distilled forms of improvisation–just two musicians and their instruments, processing, relating, transforming, and creating–instantaneously.
Paul Lytton is a European improvisor of the first order, having performed over his 50 + year career with such luminaries as Evan Parker, and Roscoe Mitchell. He is a drumming “school” in and unto himself.
I think it’s also quite likely that Ken Vandermark has had an impact on the way the MacArthur Foundation awards its music fellowships, or “Genius Grants” as they are known. As the youngest recipient at that time in 1999, it’s quite possible that his successes smoothed the way for subsequent young recipients including Regina Carter, Miguel Zenón, Vijay Iyer, and most recently, Mary Halvorson.
MB: Can you talk about your 20-plus year connection with Paul Lytton?
Ken Vandermark: Yeah, Paul Lytton, he was one of the first musicians from the English school of improvisors that I ever worked with. Yeah, and very early–like you said it’s been more than 20 years now. He came to Chicago in the mid ‘90s, I think, for the first time that I can remember anyway. And we did some work at a College radio station; some playing organized by John Corbett. And recorded that, and then pretty soon after that I went to Belgium, where he lives now, and did a concert with him. And those two things were put together for the first recording we did, which is now more than 20 years old. So it goes back pretty far. But – Laul’s one of the most important improvisors that’s played the music without any script, you know. He really challenges the idea of what real improvisation is about, in terms of, like, starting from scratch–almost at each performance, you know, really wiping the slate clean, so to speak, and seeing what the music’s going to be on each occasion.
MB: you also play in other duo settings with drummers like Paal Nilssen-Love or Tim Daisy. How is this duo different from some of your others?
Ken Vandermark: Well, like I said it’s the – he is very extreme in terms of the challenge. When I first played with him a big reason was the excitement–he’s a fantastic person–that was a big reason–but from the musical standpoint, was getting to work with a member of the creative community that really challenged the idea of what improvised music could be–by eliminating conventions with melody, conventions with time that had been, let’s say, more established on the American scene, going into the mid-1960s. And at that point–also in Chicago with the AACM–the pulse that would go with a lot of jazz, let’s say, and more improvised versions of that, which were known as, like, free jazz, usually was implied. I mean, Cecil Taylor broke those things down fairly early, but the English school really eliminated the forward motion that was connected to Cecil Taylor’s music. And it became, let’s say, more abstracted. And working with him from the beginning has been a challenge to my Americanism as a player. There’s a lot of things that I do just because of the way I hear music, ‘cause of my own, yeah, background as a player and the things I’m surrounded by here.
And early on when I was playing with him and Kent Kessler, bassist based in Chicago–we did a tour–[Paul] would go into like a pulsed time, which really surprised me because I associate his playing with getting rid of that. So the percussion parts were very abstracted and, yeah, obtuse in a way. And he said “that’s because you’re implying a beat” and I thought I was playing completely without that, getting rid of it. And I really had to think about the nature of time–like how you express a phrase. And the way I was phrasing things, he was hearing, yeah, like, a suggestion of where a pulse would fall, as opposed to, like, things being off a grid. And so when I work with him, even now, I’m really confronted with what are my own conventions; things that I’m not even aware that I’m doing. He tends to push against those and challenge them in really important ways. And so when I work with him, I leave those occasions with a lot to consider; If I want to get free from my own, yeah, my own clichés so to speak.
So he’s very – I mean playing with Paal Nilssen-Love, Tim Daisy, Hamid Drake, all these other incredible drummers, they all have their own personalities and creative character. And they’re all different, which is why I love working with drummers. How much in particular they really – I love time, I love the idea of – of what Rhythm can be and how you stretch it and move it around. All the people I work with, especially drummers, like, they challenge those things, and open them up in different ways. But Paul is definitely one of the most exciting improvisors I’ve ever been able to play with. It’s really like jumping into an unknown sort-of territory each time, even with the background that we have.
MB: That’s really so interesting. It’s fascinating, really. There’s so much to consider in that. I understand that you’re originally from Rhode Island, and that you ended up at McGill in Montreal for a while, and then Chicago. Were formative things going on during that period? Were you playing? And how did you end up in Chicago?
Ken Vandermark: Oh yeah, definitely, there was a lot of formative stuff. I mean, I mainly grew up outside of Boston, and I was in that area in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a very, very fertile time for jazz and improvised music. There was Paul’s Mall, and Jazz Workshop. And people like Art Blakey, and Sonny Rollins, Phil Woods, and, you know, Johnny Griffin, all kinds of people were coming through there. So there was, like, a lot of mainstream stuff happening. But then there were always places where Boston-based groups like The Fringe and Joe Morris were playing much more adventurous music, outside of, like, you know, mainstream chords-based-type material. And then there were people coming in from out of town like: Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell; Jemeel Moondoc; William Parker. Like, that was coming in from New York, so there was a lot of interesting stuff to be around and encounter as a listener.
And I started playing music in the third grade. I started as a trumpet player. Then when I was 16 I switched to tenor because I was a – I was a really terrible trumpet player. And I wanted to play music, so I made a kind-of jump to the tenor, and that worked out much better for me. And I went to McGill University to study film and communications, and just to get out of where I was from, basically. Kind of, yeah, try something different. I moved back to Boston in 1986 and I was working on my own music at that point. I had a lot of bands and associates of my age, like, in their twenties, playing original material. And then I made the decision to move to Chicago in ‘89 after visiting a few times, and I had friends from university who lived here who were musicians. And there was just a lot more going on. And if you went to the Arts page there were, you know, five times more clubs with music, I mean, than in Boston. And Chicago’s a much bigger city and it has, like, a very fertile music scene.
I mean going back to the beginning of the twentieth century there’s been so much music here, and it’s true today with all kinds of genres, you know, not just jazz and improvised music, but I mean with – you know, there’s the classical scene, there’s the new music scene, there’s the rock scene, there’s so many cultural groups based in Chicago. There’s all kinds of music from around the world happening. So it’s a super vibrant scene to be a part of–to be immersed in. So coming to Chicago made sense to me after visiting a few times, and it’s been my home since the late ‘80s.
MB: And then in 1999 you were awarded the MacArthur fellow. How did that change your life and/or work?
Ken Vandermark: It definitely changed things dramatically from–obviously the economic standpoint. It was the first time I had resources, in a financial way, to do projects that would just never, ever, ever, have occurred – and I can – primary among those were putting the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet on tour in the United States a couple of times: one with a flying tour; one in a tour bus. An international group – we never would have – that never could have happened. I mean there’s just no way that thing could have occurred. There was the Territory Band which I had for about the whole time the MacArthur ran. And when the money ran out, that band continued. But bringing in musicians–half the band was from Europe, half the band was based primarily in the United States, mostly in Chicago–and exploring writing for a larger ensemble on a regular basis, like, that was huge. And that wouldn’t have occurred without the money. But a lot of the things that happened continued; they started before the MacArthur and then they continued, obviously, over the last, you know, 20 years since the MacArthur finished. I mean another 20 – almost 20 years since the MacArthur concluded. And that was really important. It was like two very key things. The finances enabled things to occur that were set in motion already, and that forward momentum continued when the MacArthur funds were gone. And that was very helpful; I learned a ton in that period. And it kind of maintained and developed things that, like I said, began before the money happened, and the finances and support happened.
But another important thing occurred when I got the MacArthur, was the foundation said you know “we want you to understand that this is the first time…” – ‘cause at that point I was the youngest person to get it for music, and all the people that had received it for improvised music and jazz beforehand were people that – they changed the paradigm for the music, you know, people like Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor you know musicians of that stature. And I clearly, at the age I was, was not anywhere – I mean I was not in that category. And they made it very clear that this was an experiment to see what would happen to someone’s work when it was given to them at the beginning of their career as opposed to celebrating what all they contributed towards the later part of their career. And that was really good to know, and to be able to say to people when they were like “well, why did you get it? because you don’t deserve it.” And fundamentally the argument could be made very clearly that I didn’t deserve it based on the way it had been awarded previously; the fellowship for music. And that was kind-of good psychologically for me to understand, hey, this is to – what am I going to do with this? They kind of threw the – you know it’s like “here’s a challenge.” Given these resources that no one – very rarely, rarely, ever gain, what are you going to do with these things? And I wanted to prove that – that it was a worthwhile choice and I did something for the music, about the music, with those funds and, you know, so there was merit to the decision to pick me.
MB: Was there kind-of a reckoning with the foundation at the end? And if so, how did that turn out?
Ken Vandermark: Well, you know, I think it’s changed since I got the fellowship. I mean it was extremely secretive, like, I had no idea – and that’s probably still true, but I mean, I had no idea I was up for it. Like, it’s not like a grant where you apply. The way it used to be–and I haven’t really followed the procedure now, but I’m guessing it’s probably the same–if someone would nominate these participants who aren’t even aware that they’re in the running for it. And during the course of a year the people on the panel look at the work that’s happened by the nominees that were secretly nominated, and try to decide who is still in the running as that year progresses. And in the end I was still there, I was still in the process. And they contacted me, actually, while I was on tour, and let me know I won the prize. And I had no – I mean, I didn’t even believe it, you know, ‘cause it was like, okay, you know, I didn’t know I was up for it in the first place and then the whole circumstances about – about being told; like, I didn’t really believe it until, in a sense, the first – when things were announced publicly in the paper. ‘Cause the thought was like “that can’t be possible.”
So that whole process was super secretive. And then they were very, very, hands off. They were like “you can do anything you want with this.” It can go towards projects that involve your work. It can be – like, you can buy a car, you can do whatever you want with it. And I think they just watched what I did with it and left me alone, and just sent quarterly payments, you know, while the fellowship ran for five years. And at the end there wasn’t, like, a report that I needed to make. The work was there, the evidence of what I had done was there. And they really – I mean, they get in touch a couple times a year just to, kind-of, let me know what they’re doing. And, you know, sometimes they ask me to have input on nominees that they’re thinking about, and stuff like that in the music world. But in general it’s extremely hands off, which is part of what’s amazing about it–because it’s really about the work, you know. They admire the work that these people have done. They give them money to do more of that work, or help them continue the work because – maybe it goes towards them getting, you know, a place to live so they don’t have to stress about that, you know, things like that
MB: I guess my last question is – I’m curious about – so when you work, say, with musicians that you haven’t necessarily worked a lot with, or who are of differing backgrounds and things like that – and you have your compositions or your charts, let’s say. How do you convey your instructions to improvisors? I know you’ve posted a few things on Instagram and social media, but I’m just curious about how you escape sort-of the tendency of, like, the contemporary classical world where everything is notated down to every expression, can you talk about that?
Ken Vandermark: Yeah, well one of the first things is that almost always I’m writing for musicians that I know. Like I’ve heard their work or I’ve collaborated with them before, and I have a sense of, let’s say, their creative personality, the kinds of things they like to go to as a player and then that allows me to kind of consider what music I would compose for them, or I might try to get them to do differently, that they wouldn’t do if it were, let’s say, completely improvising. I kind of knock the music in different directions so to speak. So a big part of it–the compositional process–is actually the personel; not the instrumentation but the people involved. So that’s huge. And then the second part is writing the material. I mean, that’s a really good question in a sense because I’m interested in lots of different kinds of music. And writing for improvisors is a very different thing than, as you mention, like writing new music scores where almost everything–or as much as possible–is really notated. And there is expression involved, and interpretation involved, but it’s more limited, the parameters are more narrow.
When writing for an improvisor, the implication is that at least half of the material is going to be realized by the improvisor themselves. So going back to, like, writers for this music that I admire really at the highest level, let’s say Duke Ellington. I mean, if you think of Duke Ellington’s music you think of those compositions, but you also cannot ignore the impact of Johnny Hodges, or Harry Carney, or, you know, any of the other musicians in the band who contributed as players or as an improvisor, and that’s fascinating to me; this combination of working that way. So, for example, in a band I have now, based in Chicago, called Marker, the drummer Phil Sudderberg is very different than Tim Daisy, who I’ve been playing with for years and years. And so when I’m thinking about that music I’m thinking, now, about the kinds of things that Phil does and gearing the music, in a rhythmic sense, towards things that Phil might want to do, and then maybe try things that Phil wouldn’t expect to do, and kind of generate some tension that way, hopefully in a nice way but – you know a creative kind of tension going on. The same thing with the players–the people in the band–there’s two guitars and they’re very, very, very, different kinds of players. If they were both, let say – had a similar approach to the instrument: the same kind of technical tools; the same kind of vocabulary; it would be extremely boring to write for two guitars. But because it’s Steve Marquette and Andrew Clinkman, I’m writing for them not just the instrument. The instrument actually is secondary to the person playing it, in my case. So those factors, let’s say, are really key. The personality of the player, and then this dynamic between writing for them and what they’re going to bring to the thing, not just interpreting the notated material but adding to it through their improvised sensibility.
Michael Brenneisis a drummer, composer, and improvisor based in Madison, Wisconsin. A volunteer blogger for BlueStem Jazz, he wants everyone to know that he’s a musician not a journalist.