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The first thing you need to know about Ken Vandermark is this: he is a very, very busy man. Vandermark is part of 14 groups that play together with some regularity. Add to that equation the new ensembles that seem to be sprouting all the time, ad hoc encounters and session work and it becomes damned near impossible to keep up. It’s hard to believe that someone working at Vandermark’s furious pace isn’t stretching himself too thin. Amazingly, any ill effects from his ambitious schedule are not showing up in the music.

Vandermark is a lightning rod conducting energy to the far flung world of free jazz. He stands at the crossroads between American tradition and European experimentation. He is an insatiable student jumping at opportunities to play with and learn from his elders. Working with elder statesmen like Fred Anderson and Sun Ra alumni Robert Barry put him in direct contact with the Chicago jazz

tradition. Playing with Peter Brotzmann and Paul Lytton brings him into contact with the European free jazz tradition. Unlike most players who try to hone in on one style of playing and perfect it, Vandermark is trying to assimilate the entire spectrum of the jazz tradition all at once. A very real impetus to this omnivorous appetite for collaboration is the realization that the old guard is

passing on. These opportunities will not be available indefinitely.

There were journalists who criticized the choice of Ken Vandermark as recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1999. Traditionally, the grant has been given to artists with decades of work behind them. At 35 years of age, Vandermark is a relative pup. Seeing what Ken has done with his first installment of the $265,000 award validates the foundation’s decision as an investment in the future of free jazz. A large chunk of this year’s stipend was

used to underwrite an 11-city tour by Peter Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet. Other projects underwritten by the grant money included recording sessions by Vandermark’s own large ensemble, the Territory Band and the Brotzmann Chicago Tentet.

So Ken Vandermark is a very busy man. The following discs are a sampling of the discs Ken Vandermark released in the year 2000.


Realtime (Unheard Music/Atavistic), originally released in 1996, is the most traditional sounding of the releases in this roundup. Steam is a group co-lead by Vandermark and pianist Jim Baker which explicitly sets out to explore the terrain of a piano-based jazz quartet. The group pays tribute to Bebop icons with dedications to Dexter Gordon, Herbie Nichols and Booker Ervin. Baker and Vandermark show a profound understanding and respect for bop tradition while taking full advantage of the flexibility within that structure. I am particularly taken with Ken’s bass clarinet work on “Non-Confirmation.” “Explosive Motor” gives a nod to longtime Cecil Taylor collaborator, Jimmy Lyons. Not surprisingly, this is the most out there piece on the disc. The disc ends with a slow mood piece called “Tableau Shot” which is dedicated to filmmaker Peter Greenaway.


Paul Lytton is best known for his work with fellow Englishman, Evan Parker. Lytton and Parker have been pushing the boundaries of improvised music for the better part of three decades. Lytton is a percussionist rather than a conventional drummer. Where most drummers, even jazz drummers, are primarily concerned with playing time, Lytton is more concerned with exploring sounds. Lytton isn’t concerned with making the music swing or groove. His aim is to take sounds to new places. In other words, Paul Lytton is unlike most drummers that Ken Vandermark has played with before.

English Suites (Wobbly Rail) is a two-disc set documenting three sets of improvised music. The first set was recorded at the WNUR radio station in Evanston Illinois in January of 1999. The set has the feel of two players sparring, feeling each other out and finding what works. The WNUR set takes up the entire first disc.

The second disc was recorded at the Sound in Motion festival in Belgium in November of 1999. The first set was actually a three-way collaboration. Lytton and Vandermark were improvising to “Films for Love Performance Three: ISOHYET” by Braden King. Maybe it was the context provided by the film that gives this set a more cohesive feel. It probably has more to do with the players being more comfortable, more practiced at anticipating each other’s moves. The second set from Belgium was just the two men without the films and it works just as well. Whatever it is, the second disc hits harder and makes a stronger impression.


Sun Ra’s Arkestra paved the way for George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Sun Ra set the stage with his elaborate stage show, science fiction mixed with Afrocentric themes and ground breaking compositions. Funkadelic picked up the baton and took similar themes to rock and roll extremes. “We Travel the Spaceways” and “Cosmic

Slop” may not sound at all similar, but they’re products of similarly inspired, similarly eccentric, geniuses.

On Thirteen Cosmic Standards by Sun Ra & Funkadellic (Atavistic), Vandermark, percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist Nate McBride pay tribute to the masters. At first it seems audacious to try to reduce music made by two renowned big bands to the trio format. Then again, Sun Ra’s jazz and the Funk seem to go together like silk and sandpaper. On first listening, the sudden shifts in tempo and intensity feel like you are lurching along trying to learn how

to drive stick. After a few listens, it all begins to make sense. The

individual tracks are stellar examples of adapting material to new and unique contexts. The collection hangs together in a very unconventional way, which is rather appropriate considering the inspirations.


The discs we’ve looked at so far focus on various parts of the musical spectrum. We’ve seen Ken playing funk, bebop, and chamber jazz all within a context of improvisation. The Vandermark 5 is the flagship of Ken’s fleet. It’s where all these strands come together. It’s also the most active of the groups. They have a standing weekly gig whenever all the members are in town. The 5 are rounded out by the rhythm section of Kent Kessler (bass) and Tim Mulvenna (drums) with Jeb Bishop (trombone and guitar) and Jim Rempis (saxes). You see

these names popping up frequently in Ken’s other groups too.

Burn the Incline (Atavistic) is the fourth recording from this group and shows off Vandermark’s increasing maturity as a composer. The disc begins with the tranquil meditation “Distance” and ends with the chaotic churn of “Ground.” Between these bookends is an exciting journey through what’s right with jazz these days. In between, the Five draw on the entire range of their collective experience. You can hear Jeb Bishop playing barbwire guitar and gut bucket trombone. You can hear the horn players take inspired solos and play some magnificent unison passages. It’s a grand collection by a great band. There is one thing that I find a bit ironic. Burn the Incline perfectly describes the incendiary music on last year’s Simpatico. Simpatico is a better description of the focused competition on this disc. So much for labels.

So there you have an incomplete sampling of Ken Vandermark’s Y2K recorded output. Not represented (because I haven’t been able to get my hands on them) are recordings with Triple Play, Witches and Devils, the Brotzmann Tentet and probably more that I’m not even aware of. As good as these recordings are, Ken will tell you himself that the real deal is hearing this music played live. Jazz is the art of the improviser. All recordings can ever be are recreations of a

given time and place. Do yourself a favor. If you ever get a chance to see one of Vandermark’s groups live, do it.

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