A cacophony of words with Ken Vandermark
The prolific jazz improviser plays September 30 at Arts + Literature Laboratory.
To see Ken Vandermark perform live is thrilling. The jazz saxophonist/clarinetist and avant-garde composer combines disparate elements into beautiful songs. Swooning saxophone solos, blues riffs, Prince licks, funk—all these sounds swirl together, fall apart into ferocious cacophony, and then unfold into melody (or don't).
Vandermark has spent more than 25 years in the creative stew of Chicago’s improvised jazz music scene, playing in and leading a variety of ensembles in addition to working solo. Through dozens of collaborations and releases, Vandermark has built a stature that's both formidable and accessible.
“One problem people in my field are faced with is the intimidation factor for most listeners who aren’t familiar with what kind of music that I play,” Vandermark says. “The jazz media creates this sort of elitist perspective of music where you have to have all the records, and you have to know the history, before you can really get to what’s happening now. And the truth is, you don’t.”
One of the best parts of seeing Vandermark live is the physicality of his performances. “The people I play with are so passionate about what they do and the music is so visually kinetic,” he says.
I saw Vandermark play nearly 25 years ago on a side stage at the Chicago Jazz Festival. One a gorgeous late summer afternoon, Vandermark played sax and created incredible noise and beauty on a riser while the waves of Lake Michigan lapped in the background. His music demanded attention. And it still does. Vandermark releases several albums a year, a mix of live performances and new studio recordings.
His recent recordings include the November 2015 release Site Specific. This album of solo works demonstrates Vandermark’s playful and fierce performance style.
Vandermark continues to expand his field of collaborators. Another 2015 release, Audio One: What Thomas Bernard Saw, was recorded live in Chicago and Milwaukee with a gaggle of compelling musicians, including Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone, Jeb Bishop on trombome, and Nick Mazzarella on alto sax. Vandermark plays the reeds.
In July 2016, Vandermark released Dispatch To The Sea, a moody and energetic album with sonic pops, screeching sax, driving rhythms, and looping computer-generated textures.
Unlike many jazz musicians, Vandermark has been savvy about embracing the technological changes that have developed during the past 30 years. His Instagram game is thoughtful. He even live-streams his concerts from all over the world.
Vandermark will be playing two sets in Madison at Arts and Literature Laboratory on September 30. It's an improvised solo show, and it winds up a run of solo tour dates.
“Everyone deals with playing solo differently,” he says. “I’ve gotten to the point where most of the time I don’t deal with any pre-composed material. I just walk up and really try to start with playing in the room and finding out what the ideas are going to be about, what works and what doesn’t.”
“It’s dealing with the nature of finding what’s there in that particular moment,” he adds, “which sounds like mumbo-jumbo but in a weird way that’s kind of what happens.”
Vandermark spoke with me via Skype earlier this month. He shared more thoughts about the nature of solo improvisation, technology, and the need for constant change in the music business.
Tone Madison: What drew you to jazz in the first place?
Ken Vandermark: I grew up in a household where that was the main music I heard. My father, in particular, is a huge jazz fan. When I was a kid, my folks used to take me to concerts. I was just into it. I was attracted to the musicians, the way they were in clubs. They were receptive to me being there and talking to me. They just seemed so alive in the performance on stage. It was super exciting. I got into the music at that point. I started playing saxophone when I was 16. Pretty quickly after that I started writing my own music. And it just went from there. It’s been an interesting journey.
Tone Madison: Has it lived up to your childhood expectations?
Ken Vandermark: Yes, very much so. It’s actually exceeded those. I always wanted to play. And when I got pretty serious about it, when I was in college, the music part of it—the commitment involved in it—I was aware of it, because I had seen so much music. I saw incredible people play to really small audiences.
The jazz I was most enthusiastic about in college was, let’s say, more avant-garde or uncommercial. I was aware of the fact that I would be struggling during the course of my life if I wanted to commit to that.
But the thing I didn’t expect was how incredible my life would become because of the music. I’ve been able to travel all over the world. I’ve been able to perform for people all over the world. I’ve met musicians from all over the world. I did not anticipate the impact it would have on me personally, enriching my life. Those experiences, that part, I wasn’t conscious of what that would mean until I was doing it.
Tone Madison: Avant-garde jazz gets knocked for being intellectual, but the music can be deeply moving, especially when seen live. How do you, as a musician, fit all these different emotional states—such as confusion, love, romanticism, sadness—into one song?
Ken Vandermark: That’s an interesting question. I don’t really think about what I’m doing in terms of the expressing something like, "Oh, I had a bad day, so I’m angry, and I’m going to play angry music." Or something like that. That’s over-simplifying it, obviously. But this direct correlation doesn’t exactly work for me.
There’s no question that my experiences and the ideas that work for me get tossed around in my head and affect my playing. But I feel that music is a parallel set of communication similar to language, just as the visual arts are a parallel set of communication. We wouldn’t have those things if conversation could cover everything—emotional experience, intellectual experience, spiritual experience. Music is a necessary part of human endeavor.
Every society has music. Even now, societies that don’t have a written language all have music. They have things that are like sonic games, where their work incorporates rhythm in a way that makes the work less horrendous to do. There’s a reason for that. Music expresses something very fundamental. What it is, is hard for me to put into words.
One special thing about jazz and improvised music is that, when you see it live, you can see the interaction of the players, not only what they are playing sound-wise, but the physicality of what they are doing. Visual communication happens between players as they are playing. A lot is spoken on stage that you can’t get just listening to a record. That’s why playing live is key to reach people. They can get so much more out of music when they are listening to it live that they can’t get if someone puts a record on for them.
A lot of what I do is kind of challenging. And I think the challenge is met better when experienced firsthand.
Tone Madison: You’ve been live-streaming a lot of your concerts. What has that been like as a performer? What have you heard back from audiences?
Ken Vandermark: It’s a fascinating time to be performing music right now. Since I started playing, everything has changed, and in a short amount of time, due to the internet and the technology connected to that. The easiest way to explain it: It’s a Pandora’s Box that has been opened.
Because of the internet, anyone can get anything for free from any time period in recorded history. That’s a hard thing to contend with, in terms of selling records to people. It used to be that selling records had pretty profound impact in terms of income for musicians—even for me, someone who is an uncommercial musician. I have a lot of friends who work pretty hard to try to control who can get to their music.
On the other hand, the first time I went to Sao Paulo, Brazil, there were hundreds of people at that concert who knew my music already because of the internet. I certainly didn’t have records distributed there.
The problem of getting music to people, which is a major concern for all types of musicians and why they would often work with record labels, is gone. Record labels could get their music distributed to other parts of the world more effectively than musicians could usually do it themselves. Now, anyone can listen to me.
So live-streaming is a way to disseminate ideas that maybe has more impact because it has that visual aspect. And maybe it conveys some information that can’t be conveyed just through the recordings. Not everyone can be at the show.
One of the problems, and maybe this sounds like nitpicking, is the sound of things has become so crappy. We’re back to worse than AM radio standards now. The way people listen to music, and the way it gets documented and presented, has shifted radically. The quality of the sound has diminished, despite the fact that the technology for recording has gone through the roof.
So we are in this weird jumble of things. No one really anticipated it and no one knows where it’s really gonna go. From my standpoint, the best thing to do is work with the tools. Create stuff.
One of the things which has always been important to me is the Do It Yourself model, from Fugazi and underground rock bands to the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Music]. Define yourself on your own terms, present your own concerts. It’s easier to do that now than before.
There’s a downside to it. There’s always some sort of balance going on about what’s good and what’s bad with changes in society and culture. I’m trying to focus on what’s good about it because the bad part is just a waste of time. There’s not much you can do about it. It is the way it is now.
Tone Madison: Do you think some of that compression of sound, the crunching of audio files, comes from commercialization? Or do people not hear the difference?
Ken Vandermark: The thing that is so strange is that at my age, I’m at this dividing line. I remember the way things were before the internet, basically. It came up in our lifetime, but it wasn’t prevalent. And now it is. For someone who is 18 now, that’s all they’ve known. Their whole universe is based on how things look and sound and the dictates of internet communication. They can get music for free, and other programs that are extraordinary, like shareware. I cannot believe what’s free.
So to say you should really buy a record because if you don’t buy their music, [musicians] won’t be able to make more because they can’t pay their bills, it’s a hard argument to make to them, even though it’s true.
The music isn’t free. We have to find a way to pay our bills like everybody else. Streams of income keep being taken away from us. Every year I have to rethink my strategy to continue to keep doing what I’m doing, to make enough money to deal with the reality of living in this society where you have to pay your bills. Literally every year I have to start almost over again, rethinking touring in Europe, rethinking touring in the United States.
The amount of time I spend on the practical realities of trying to play this music take away a huge amount of time from the creative reality, that I really should be dealing with, that I want to deal with, that is actually the thing I’m passionate about. I’m really not passionate about email. But it takes up a lot of my time. It’s part of the job.
Tone Madison: But your Instagram is fantastic. You’ve really embraced technology in a way that most jazz musicians haven’t.
Ken Vandermark: Thank you for saying that. Because there are times when I wonder what the hell I’m doing. I have a lot of trouble with some social media, just in terms of the jargon, and the way you approach stuff. I mean, Facebook is a really strange animal to me. I interact with it because so many people who are interested in my music interact with it and it’s a way for me to circumvent the popular media. Like I said, I can define my own terms. And express my experiences with the music and ideas about it directly and not be circumvented by someone who is going to interpret it for me. But it’s very had to be on Facebook and not cringe when you see the way ideas are pocketed into: do you like it? Do you put a smiley face next to it? You have someone with a cat video next to an atrocity in the Ukraine. I’m very aware of the contradictions there. It’s problematic for me, and yet it’s something that’s part of the reality.
I’ll write about things that seem to make sense to me. I try to articulate working on projects or what it’s like to work with other musicians, not in an some super esoteric way but in a direct way, and then someone will post a photograph of me in their backyard having a beer and that’s the thing that people respond to. It’s nice on one level, but on another, I want to throw my computer through the wall.
For me, Instagram is more pleasant because I’m interested in photography. It’s a way to utilize photographs and images, things I’m curious about.
Tone Madison: What do you have planned for the Madison show?
Ken Vandermark: I’m playing a solo show. I’ve been working on solo music for a while and it’s a chance to work some more on it. I will just have come off a tour in the US, a short trip of about a week, playing solo. So [the concert in Madison] will be ideal to cap off a month of working on this approach to playing.
Solo is really challenging. You are in a room and you can’t rely on getting information from another player. It’s a feedback loop of ideas with yourself. Part of the reason I love improvised music is that I hear something someone does and it triggers in me something and suddenly I’m in a new territory. Well, if you’re soloing, you are by yourself, you are creating all the information, and all the ideas. How are you supposed to surprise yourself?
What I’m trying to do is, OK, I’m in the room with this group of people. What are we going to find together? I am trying to do something that isn’t scripted. And push the ideas around, to see where they lead me. When the music is really good, really burning, everybody is in the same position. The musicians don’t know exactly what’s going to happen next, but they expect that it’s going to work somehow. And the same thing is true of the audience.
You’re on this kind of edge. When it’s solo and it’s working, you are really exposed. You are out there on your own, and if you are not going anywhere, everybody knows it.
I’ll bring probably at least three horns. I don’t think I’m going to bring four because getting them back would be tricky on the bus. I’m supposed to play two sets, which is really challenging, too. It’s a lot of music to come out of one head. But I like the challenge of that.