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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A conversation about pushing music with Ken Vandermark

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Subtlety and restraint are two words that aren't often used to describe the work of Chicago sax man Ken Vandermark. As a member of seminal free jazz and improvisational ensembles Vandermark 5, Spaceways Inc., Caffeine, and too many others to name, he’s done more to further jazz music over the last two decades than seems humanly possible.

The frenetic pace of his output traverses a wide range of sounds, reaching from a traditional European approach to spontaneous freakouts. Vandermark's latest offering is a collaboration with Dutch counterpart Ab Baars of ICP Orchestra titled Goofy June Bug. It’s bound by a lingering tension that builds between every note and skronk, flourishing in whispered silence before breaking into wild, blood-boiling chaos.

Both Vandermark and Baars alternate between saxophone and clarinet over a careening rhythm section of Wilbert De Joode (double bass) and Martin Van Duynhoven (drums). The spaciousness of a tune like "Straws" makes its omnipotence clear from the onset. Other more ominous pieces, such as "Honest John" or the quivering confusion of "Then He Whirled About," ebb with an aggressive sound, but the music walks on insect legs, scuttling out of the light before revealing its true form.

Chad Radford:  You’re a pretty busy guy.

Ken Vandermark:  Yeah, a little bit. There are a lot of interesting people out there to work with, so I try to keep busy by working with them all.

Goofy June Bug is a more restrained album than what I’m used to hearing from you.

There were some other pieces that didn’t end up on the record that are more aggressive sounding. What Ab did with the CD, which I thought was interesting, was focus on the group in a way that would keep it from being a free jazz blow-out album. I’m always challenging myself to work in different ways, and in working with Ab’s trio, which has a really strong identity, we dealt with the music in a more oblique and abstract way, rather than throw it right into your face. That was refreshing.

Ken Vandermark & Ab Baars Trio play Eyedrum on Wed., April 15. $15. 8 p.m. 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Suite 8. 404-522-0655.

How much of the CD is improvised?

The composed elements could fit onto one piece of music paper. At least 80-90% of the material was improvised. On that particular trip there were certain arrangements that we had worked out but the architecture of the arrangements was very open-ended. There was a lot of freedom. And that recording happened after I think 21 concerts. It was a long European trip and the amount that these guys did to push the music every night was extraordinary. In a way the album that resulted is one view point of the material. There were some nights where the music was much more aggressive and intensified. On other nights the music was very spare. It all depended on the mood of the band and the show. I really love playing in that kind of situation because it keeps the playing fresh; even when you’re working with the same set of tunes every night, the interpretations are super open-ended.

When playing with the guys night after night do you gravitate toward a common groove?

That’s one of the real challenges with the people that I work with most often, and the ones that I like to work with all the time, really deal with the challenge of pushing the music into new directions when we play every night. The kind of music that I’m interested in is all about a sense of risk and surprise, even when you know the musicians quite well or you’ve been playing every single night on a trip. The goal, whether described or unstated, is always to find something new to play. When things fail it’s more a failure not that the music doesn’t work conventionally, or lots of mistakes are made, but when we stop doing that. The job of an improvising musician is not to develop material, get it set and play it the same way every night, even if it works. There are ways to develop material like that and I have worked with a lot of groups that would find specific material and then compose it. What we’re doing is exactly the opposite. We’re getting into new territory every night which means going into areas that are uncomfortable and many times it all happens in one tune. That challenge is what I really love about music.

You don’t have the luxury of a set of however many songs you play every night, and you can map out when you’re going to start and stop, and between which songs you’re going to tell jokes. Does that make it difficult to build a rapport with an audience?

I usually know when something is working based on gut response. The issue becomes being too concerned about something succeeding. I would be lying if I said that I’m not concerned with whether or not the audience likes the concert, but the goal is to play for the music and deal with what the music needs. There are times when you have a unique experience on-stage where the audience and the musicians are in a simultaneous space. No one really knows what the music is going to do, but every body has faith in the musicians and that the decisions they make will lead the music some place interesting. When you’re tired and you’ve been traveling everyday musicians have to rely on each other for this process. There’s a rapport that happens that’s about pushing things and you can sense when someone is coasting. When I’m feeling that people will shove me around to get things started and that’s crucial. We are human and we do get tired and sometimes you feel more creative than other times.

Is the editing process painful for this kind of music?

When you start cutting apart these pieces it changes the nature of the music. If I'm taking a solo and Ab plays a solo after me, what I play directly influences his decisions and vice versa. The subtle things in the music that make it music get cut apart when you do that. An easy example of this is if you listen to the music from Motown and they weren't playing to a click track. You can hear subtle variations in the groove. That elasticity made the music quite amazing. A lot of that gets lost now because of things like pitch shifting, click tracks and adjustments in Pro Tools. These things erase part of the human nature in the music which makes a lot of music, particularly Top 40 music, deadly to my ears.

It looses the raw human character of being pushed. If you listen to a really great band like Bad Brains, at their height the stuff feels like it's going to come apart but it doesn't. People can discuss how difficult the music is but it doesn't matter to me if something is complicated or not. What matters is that there's a sense of possibility in the music and a sense of tension. A conventional song that's being pushed to its limits can be an amazing experience. In essence that's what we're trying to do but with different tools.

Do you find that people are intimidated by jazz and improv. music?

Yes, a lot of people do have this notion that you need to have a huge listening history with the music before any of it makes sense, but the truth of the matter is that it’s just music. The way that we go about playing deals with creating things spontaneously, but that doesn’t mean that it’s gibberish or makes less sense than any other kinds of music. It’s just a different way of making music. That also doesn’t mean that someone who is familiar with mine or Ab’s work can listen to it and get more out of it than someone who walks in and hears us for the first time.

I grew up in a family that took me to a lot of shows and got into music, but almost everybody that I play with that’s my age or younger came to the music through punk rock. You hear a lot of it and you enjoy it and some people have a musical curiosity which leads them to checking out jazz. I think there’s an esoteric connection that’s been built up around jazz because there isn’t a lot of access to it in the clubs. Odds are if you’re going out to see a show on any given night it’s going to be a punk show, an indie rock show or something like that. I don’t think I have ever talked to anyone who said they couldn't get into punk rock because it was too esoteric. But for me the music that I play is the exact same visceral experience. The aesthetics may be different but the people that I play with and the approach that they take has the same passion and visceral energy, even in a more subtle situation like with the recording we were talking about earlier, the intensity of the live performance is essential to understanding the music.

(Photo by Mireia Bordonada)

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