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Ken Vandermark: Focus

Ken Vandermark (photo: Joel Wanek)
Ken Vandermark (photo: Joel Wanek)
Ken Vandermark
The Vandermark 5 (L-R): Tim Daisy, Dave Rempis, Jeb Bishop, Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler

The stink of Ammonia and bleach on the still-wet floor greets the Vandermark 5.

It’s one hour before show time at the Black Cat, Washington, D.C.’s premier indie-rock club, and the members of Ken Vandermark’s quintet-bassist Kent Kessler, trombonist Jeb Bishop, saxophonist Dave Rempis and new drummer Tim Daisy-are quickly loading in their equipment from their two rental vans.

The 5 are midway through their U.S. tour of the East and Midwest supporting their sixth studio CD, Airports for Light (Atavistic). Tonight they are playing the second stage of the Black Cat, below the main stage where several rock bands will be playing-at the same time as Vandermark’s crew.

A longhaired, raspy-voiced, rock-club lifer approaches Vandermark to get the band’s food orders, tell them which dressing room they’ll have (the small one) and to encourage the group to arrange the few chairs in the room however they choose.

The Chicago-based Vandermark 5 are an odd band out: they are too comfortable with punk aesthetics and do-it-yourself traditions to fit in the button-down jazz world, but they are still too avant-garde for the average indie-rock fan. Still, despite being tweeners, the Vandermark 5 are finding a comfortable middle ground between those extremes, playing to audiences whose tastes have been catholicized and who are capable of appreciating wide ranges of rock and jazz on their own terms.

The Vandermark 5 does it pretty much alone, too. There are no tour managers, their record label does little publicity or advertising, they drive their own vehicles and they have often booked their own tours. And Vandermark usually jumps offstage immediately after he’s done performing to sell merchandise.

“If I’m there talking to people, there’s a kind of connection with the audience that happens that’s different from me just being on stage, and that helps move CDs, which is a necessary part of the economics of doing the tour,” Vandermark says matter-of-factly. “I’ve been doing it for a while, so even though it’s really hard and it’s really tiring, it’s easier for me to shift gears: When I’m onstage, we’re either running charts or playing a gig; when I’m offstage I’m like a tour manager or a spokesperson for what we’re doing. Plus, I like to talk a lot. I like to talk about the music, and generally speaking I like getting feedback from people and discussing ideas. That’s one of the benefits and offshoots of the music that you don’t really think about. I have friends, through the music, all over the world. Those types of things make all the hard parts-the traveling and the stress of things-more worthwhile.”

Vandermark often plays these rock clubs, which usually charge less at the door than jazz joints, because, he says, “I want to make sure we play to people in their 20s and 30s.” He’s very conscious of attracting an audience that can grow with him as an artist.

While Vandermark isn’t averse to playing regular jazz clubs or festivals, it has to be on his terms. “If we got hired to play a jazz club, I’d play there, but I’m not really interested in trying to go that direction. I’m open to doing those kinds of gigs. Like, this year I got invited to play the Chicago Jazz Festival on the main stage, which is the first time that’s happened since I’ve lived here. But if those possibilities can be incorporated into the ways that I like to work, then that’s cool, but I’m not going to give up the types of places I played on, say, this tour to play in a more established jazz venue or in jazz environments.”

Noisy clubs are a risk Vandermark’s willing to take to play his music, but he doesn’t change what he wants to play, no matter how raucous the place is. “We will not concede to the situation and just play loud music all night because we may be in a louder room; those quieter pieces are successful, maybe not in a way that they were initially designed, but they do get us into a place that’s important for us to play in and important for the audience to hear. The fact that we won’t back down from that is worth experiencing as much as the full-throttle stuff that we do. It’s a different kind of energy, it’s a different kind of tension and it’s equally as valid.

“We do all those gigs at the Empty Bottle, in Chicago, and that’s a rock club, and part of doing gigs in that environment is that it’s louder than you wish it was. But we’ve done it so much that even though it can be distracting to have this thump come through the floor or this noise, we’ve gotten used to tuning it out as much as possible. And I would rather take the risk to play a place like the Black Cat-because they’ve been really cool to us and have been really supportive of what we are doing.”

With the food ordered and the guest list discussed, the club manager disappears backstage and the Vandermark 5 is left to grab chairs and set up another makeshift jazz club. Ken Vandermark may look like an indie-rocker-dressed in a black T-shirt, dark jacket, belted jeans and black shoes, with his now-trademark flattop buzzcut-but this 38-year-old saxophonist (tenor, baritone) and clarinetist (B-flat soprano, bass) has slowly been making his mark on the international improv scene during the past 10 years. He’s a tireless worker, someone who is never without a new composition, a new project, a new performance or tour.

Vandermark’s incessant drive is one born as much out of creative necessity as it is lingering memories of when all this opportunity was nowhere to be found. “The first two years I was in Chicago were the most difficult two years in my life. No one wanted to work with me, really,” he says, walking down 14th Street in the District of Columbia a few hours before the Black Cat concert.

Vandermark grew up in Natick, Mass., a suburb of Boston, in a home filled with jazz and classical music. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, where he studied film and communications, he moved back to Beantown in 1986, where he played regularly for the next three years.

Vandermark loved the scene there, but he left for Chicago in the fall of 1989. “I was not happy in Boston, let’s just put it that way. I just didn’t connect with the city in a lot of different ways. My unhappiness with some other things-I was in a relationship that was really bad and things of that nature-I just needed to leave. A bunch of things came together at the same time and motivated me to leave. My decision to come to Chicago was really based on the fact that if I didn’t like Boston, I wasn’t going to like New York City, that high-intensity, East Coast thing, expensive.

“Then I went to Chicago, and it was brutal. I think a lot of people didn’t take my playing seriously.” Vandermark pauses, still baffled at the reception he initially received from the city that now embraces him fiercely as its own. “I’m not even sure what all the perspectives on me were. Essentially I’m self-taught, so I didn’t have school chops. I can read music and things like that, but I’m not a harmonically based player in a conventional way at all. I don’t play music that deals with chord changes. I don’t really care for that. I don’t hear music that way, and I don’t function well in those environments. I think some people thought, ‘He can’t really play.'”

Vandermark briefly played in Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble in the winter of 1989-1990, filling in for eventual Vandermark 5 member Mars Williams, but he was unceremoniously let go after a few months. “I got ousted from the band when Mars wanted to come back, just as they were invited to do a bunch of European work. I was really pissed off about that for quite a while. They had indicated that they had wanted to go with me, then at the last minute they called me up and said, ‘We’re going to go with Mars instead.’ That was difficult and humiliating.”

He stumbled along trying to form working relationships, but it wasn’t happening. “I played with some people whose attitudes, frankly, weren’t really invested in trying to play on the level in terms of passion and interest that I wanted to. It wasn’t until Kent Kessler got in touch with me about a group he was putting together with [drummer] Michael Zerang and a guitar player [Daniel Scanlan] that things turned around. That was in January of ’92. I had been, basically, sitting around writing tunes for two and a half years-hitting my head against the wall.”

That group became the Vandermark Quartet, but those nearly three years of playing alone, however difficult, made Vandermark realize how dedicated he was to the music. “That was a crucial thing. That proved to me that the music was essential to who I was. Because if there was any reason to quit, that was it-that’s a long time to sit in a room and work on stuff and hope you’ll find someone to play with.

“When I finally got the opportunity, I took that and ran with it. And basically I’ve been doing that since then. Still, in the back of my head, having the memory of that time of being ostracized, of not being able to play for that long. That’s why, since then, I’ve always had something going.”

Saying Ken Vandermark always has “something going” is an understatement. In addition to the 5, Vandermark leads the Territory Band and Free Music Ensemble, and he’s a central figure in the DKV Trio, Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, AALY Trio, School Days and Spaceways Inc. collaborations. He also counts Tripleplay, duos with Paal Nilssen-Love and Paul Lytton, Steam, the Joe Harriott Project, Witches & Devils, Flying Luttenbachers, Steelwool Trio and FJF among some of his past and present projects. (All of these groups have been documented on CD, and Vandermark’s massive discography can be viewed at

Remarkably, Vandermark also writes and/or arranges much of the material he plays in these groups. Jeb Bishop has known Vandermark since 1992 and has played in the 5 since its 1996 inception. “Ken’s driven,” Bishop says. “I don’t know when he has time to write all this shit. I think he probably doesn’t sleep in a lot. I tend to sleep in a lot.”

You would think because of his productivity that Vandermark is a type-A personality, always wired and perhaps a bit edgy. While he does have a lot of energy, he doesn’t seem anxious or tense, and he’s an easy and engaging conversationalist. He’s just intensely driven to create art.

“I’m a nonstructured person who has to make himself be structured,” Vandermark admits, now over bites of Ethiopian food-the first good meal he’s had since the tour began, he says. “Because if I don’t structure my day, then I don’t get done what I need to get done. I’m a project-oriented person, so I tend to have these projects with deadlines all the time. And I’m always aware of these deadlines and they motivate what work ends up getting done.”

Another motivating factor is the $500,000, spread out over five years, that Vandermark received when he won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly called the “genius grant.” Vandermark received the honor in 1999, which came not only as a surprise to him-the nomination process is conducted anonymously, and he had no idea he was up for it-but also to the majority of the jazz world, most of which asked, “Ken who?” Because even for all his tireless work, then and now, Vandermark is still very much an underground artist, releasing CDs on tiny independent labels-like Okka Disk, Platypus, Wobbly Rail, Smalltown Supersound and others-and on only slightly larger indies like Atavistic and Delmark.

Vandermark remembers when he got word that he had won the prize. “We were on the road, and we had to load in during the pouring rain. We were all soaking wet, we were behind schedule, and someone said, ‘You have a phone call.’ And my reaction was, ‘Fuck. I cannot believe this.’ They said, ‘Is this Ken Vandermark?’ And I said, ‘Yesss’-I was really aggravated and short with them. We had a concert in a half an hour. They said, ‘Do you have a quick minute?’ I said, ‘What is this about?’ They said, ‘This is the MacArthur Foundation, and we’ve called you to tell you that you’ve been picked as a MacArthur Fellow this year.’ And that’s about all they said to me. It was fairly shocking, to put it mildly.”

Shocking because he was a virtual unknown compared to past jazz recipients, such as Cecil Taylor, Max Roach, Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton-people central to the development of jazz and who were well into their careers, not at the relative beginning like Vandermark was. “They said, with me they wanted to try something different-to see how economic changes, or possibilities, early in an artist’s career would change the way an artist thought or approached the work. So it was like an experiment.”

Still, those “Ken who?” questions became an angry “Ken, why?” in some quarters. “There was a lot of griping that happened in certain areas because I got the prize, and I can’t argue with the griping. Here I’m this young white guy from Chicago that no one’s heard of, basically, except for very few select listeners and musicians. I wasn’t from New York, I didn’t come through that process, and there are still a lot of people who still see New York as the center of improvised music.”

The MacArthur Foundation must have recognized Vandermark’s ceaseless desire to create and collaborate, knowing their investment wouldn’t be placed in idle hands. He hasn’t let them down.

The Territory Band, his electro-acoustic large ensemble that deals with modern jazz and classical-style compositions combined with free improvisation, is a direct result of the MacArthur money; without it there’s no way that Vandermark could afford this large collection of top experimental musicians from Europe (Axel Dörner, Paul Lytton), Scandinavia (Per-?…ke Holmlander, Fredrik Ljungkvist, Paal Nilssen-Love) and Chicago (Jeb Bishop, Dave Rempis, Kent Kessler, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Tim Mulvenna, Jim Baker, Kevin Drumm). The Territory Band has released two CDs on Okka Disk, Transatlantic Bridge (2001) and Atlas (2002), and has performed in Chicago and had a short tour through Sweden, Norway and Austria.

“I was somebody who didn’t fit the bill for who should have gotten the prize. I’m unbelievably fortunate. I hope that by the time I’ve gone that I’ve earned the right to be mentioned in the same breath with the other winners.”

While the aesthetical question about whether or not Vandermark belongs among those other genius-grant winners is a matter of opinion, there’s no denying how hard he’s working to try and make his mark. Vandermark, who never learned to drive, has even resorted to composing and transcribing in the car as the band travels long miles between gigs to try and fit it all in.

“There’s always more to do, and I have to admit that at this point I’m a workaholic. I do a thing now, too, where I only work six days a week and take a day off and just practice that day. Last year I screwed up and didn’t really have a vacation. This year I’m going to take 10 days off in June”-before heading out to the West Coast for a Vandermark 5 tour. “It can be a problem because you need to leave room to have stuff come in.”

By “stuff” Vandermark means others’ art, be it music, painting, sculpture, photography or film. He’s a willing and open vessel for inspiration, which he then harnesses and turns into music.

“A lot of the people whose work I really admire, they just do the work. They are productive,” Vandermark says firmly. “They don’t do one thing then sit on it and then that’s their idea and then they milk it forever.

“Michael Snow does an immense amount of work as a musician, a filmmaker. Jean Tinguely made tons and tons of sculptures. David Smith worked his ass off as a sculptor. There’s something fantastic about the pursuit of ideas through the work [alone]. Sometimes when people talk about art, they have some kind of high concept about what they do, to create merit for what they do through jargon,” Vandermark spits. “It pisses me off. Just because you’re saying these things doesn’t make it so. It has to be that way through action. Creative thinkers that are able to express their ideas clearly and concretely through their work are really interesting to me. They motivate me; they inspire me.”

Vandermark acknowledges those motivators by dedicating most of his compositions to them, even if the tunes aren’t explicitly related to or inspired by their dedicatees. “The dedications are more like a thank-you note to these people. Jackie McLean made the comment after a musician had passed away: ‘We should give them their flowers while they’re here.’ I thought that was great.”

With the Vandermark 5, those tributes are always made explicit in the song titles, such as Airports for Light’s opening track, “Cruz Campo (For Gerhard Richter).”

“Right before we went into the studio, I went to an exhibition of his paintings in Chicago, and it really blew me away,” Vandermark says, still visibly enthused. “I liked his work before that, but to see such a large cross section of all his work, and to see how strong the material was, it was so inspiring. I basically came out of that exhibit, I had this new piece, and it was like, ‘This guy has just given me energy for a year,'” he laughs.

“The tune’s structural aspects: the first theme could be loosely considered a new music or ‘classical’ theme, and then it goes into this sort of free-jazz blowing thing, then it cuts to a more ‘European-style’ improvisational space and then it revs up into this harmonically shifting blowout. There are all these different kinds of territories that it shifts through, and one of the things about Richter’s painting is that he’s doing all these different styles concurrently-he has these hyperreal, almost photographlike paintings, and then the abstract stuff, and then these black and white paintings that have a lot of political connections. That sort of concurrent diversity, I’ve been exploring in my music, and I felt a very strong connection that way.”

From a painter to a film director, the second track is “Staircase (For John Cassavetes),” which sounds something like Miles Davis’ take on “Guinnevere” (without the Far Eastern trappings).

“That piece is about the mood coming from the film Faces. There’s a scene at the end of it that happens on a staircase where a husband and wife, their marriage has completely come apart. The choreography of the scene is really powerful.” Vandermark actually wrote the music based on a description he read of the film; he finally saw the movie just before this tour.

“One thing about ‘Staircase’ is something that I’m trying to do more often-it’s connected to the work of the Stax record label and to the work of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. The specificity of a piece of music having certain characteristics that only apply to that particular tune-they did that a lot with the Stax stuff. Al Jackson Jr. might do something specific to his drum kit to make it sound a little bit different in an attempt to make a hit. And Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, he’s still my favorite, with his ability to integrate irrational sounds in his pieces. In ‘Staircase,’ the center part of it, during the second horn solo-Tim Daisy, I was trying to get him to do just a bunch of irrational percussion stuff in the piece.”

Airports for Light’s dedications move on to Vandermark’s fellow reedists with the icy “7 Plus 5 (For Fredrik Ljungkvist),” the hot grooves of “Money Down (For Rahsaan Roland Kirk),” the blasting “Confluence (For Sonny Rollins)”and the outright swingin’ “Both Sides (For Budd Johnson)”

“Budd Johnson is a really interesting character in the history that I didn’t know anything about until a few years ago,” Vandermark says. “I heard Ben Webster and Associates, which is a completely phenomenal album, where Webster plays with Coleman Hawkins and this guy Budd Johnson-who came on and really blew me away. His whole approach to the tenor was really interesting, and he was completely their peer.

“My father gave me some more information about him, and it turns out he was really central to a lot of the developments of bebop, working with Gillespie. And a lot of the style, in terms of the format of the small combos and the arrangements in terms of the intervals the groups would play and the heads and all that stuff, a lot of that work was developed with Budd Johnson. To me, he’s this underappreciated character in the history who did a huge amount, played with tons of different people.

“‘Both Sides’ is like the jazz tune on the record-it has a sense of swing in a mainstream jazz sense, and it stays consistent with that feel throughout the piece. This piece doesn’t jump around like the others on the record; this tune is more like a head-solos-head tune, with arrangements to give different backgrounds for the solos. It’s the sort of tune that would not seem out of place on a jazz-radio broadcast whereas the other stuff might raise the hair on the back of someone’s head.”

One of Airport’s hair-raisers is “Initials (For Jean Tinguely).”

“That’s more specifically connected to Tinguely’s work. He would build these metal structures that have motors-they were like mobile sculptures-and a lot of them would run and destroy themselves. Then he had a lot of them that would make all kinds of sounds. Then he did a bunch that would make automatic art; they would draw or paint. You could put a piece of paper down and these things would create all this abstract art, and there was a sense of irony to that. He had a beautiful sense of humor to what he created, which I really appreciate.

“‘Initials’ is kind of like a machine. Unlike a lot of other material on the record, and the material I usually do, there will be conventional notation and maybe some directions about how to approach certain areas. But that particular piece is a set of maybe a half-dozen directions, and it’s based on how two different people in the group can cue an action and these actions may or may not set in motion a series of events. It’s very unpredictable as to how the piece will play itself out. Because the way someone individually decides to respond to a cue may or may not create a series-almost like a virus.”

Other Airports songs and their dedicatees include the broodingly funky “Other Cuts (For Curtis Mayfield)” and the ballad “Long Term Fool (For Otis Redding).”

Despite that ever-growing discography, and a huge and eclectic CD and record collection of his own, Vandermark admits he has an “ephemeral connection to my own recordings. I see them as photographs of what a group or project was doing at a certain point in time, and I think they’re representative of what was happening, but they’re not the ultimate statement. The ultimate statement is something that happens over a period of time, because it’s about the process. For an artist, the painting isn’t the end result; the painting is the offshoot of the process that you’re going through. Picasso isn’t ‘Guernica.’ That’s an expression of one aspect of his huge catalog of ideas.

“With improvised music, you can’t look at an album the same way you do as a pop album. I think that the albums are important because they are documents of what has happened, but to me it’s all about playing. I would rather be playing a gig than not playing a gig and shedding. This emphasis on the album over performance is a real problem for me.

“We’re doing this tour, and we’re not getting rich. I’m doing the tour, and hopefully the other guys see it this way too-obviously they’ve been generous about the amount of work they’ve been doing with me-as a long-term objective of trying to create something. Touring is a massive part of that.”

Perhaps because of his transient relationship to his own records, Vandermark can chuckle at this story.

“Leaving Atlanta once, Dave Rempis was driving the car. He turned the radio on, and there was some clarinet playing. We thought, ‘God, who the hell is this?’ We were just tearing this player up-‘This is horrible, this is horrible!’ Then there was this weird thing in the back of my head, thinking that something about this was familiar, maybe I had heard it at someone’s house. Then the tune-the written part-came in at the end, and it sort of sounded familiar to me. I was like, ‘What the hell is this?'”

Turns out it was a Vandermark Quartet recording.

“And Dave had just been tearing it up-‘Who the hell told this guy he could play clarinet?’-and after we realized who it was he was looking out the window, like, ‘Oh my God….’ Then we just laughed so hard.

“That’s the way it was then: I believed in that music just as much as I believe in the music I’m doing now. And hopefully now I’m a better player. But I don’t regret putting that stuff out. I don’t put out records that I don’t think aren’t worth releasing. I know there are a lot of people who criticize me for the number of records I put out. Basically, every project I’m involved in puts out a record every year, year and a half. Vandermark 5 is a perfect example:

we put out one record a year. I look at that as an ongoing concern, an ongoing band. I think it would be odd not to represent the changes in that group from year to year.”

For all his projects, the Vandermark 5 is the reedist’s signature group. The 5 was formed with the idea of trying to get something like a big-band sound from a small ensemble, hence the somewhat unusual frontline of two reed players and trombone. The group originally featured Mars Williams on saxophones and Tim Mulvenna on drums, but Rempis and Daisy have ably replaced them.

In addition to several tours of the U.S., Scandinavia and Europe, the Vandermark 5 have played nearly every Tuesday night at the Empty Bottle for more than six years. “The band has worked together a ton, and the kind of communication level that we have is really built on that. I have a core group of people who can play and read and work on lots of different kinds of things-they are willing to deal with whatever I give them. The 5 has always been about exploring different stylistic interests that I have and applying them to an improvising group.”

The Vandermark 5 can cover everything from free to funk, European chamber-style music to contrapuntal jazz, and they do it all with conviction and confidence.

“I can write something, rehearse it and do it the next day. The luxury of that-that’s why I owe the people in the band so much, and that’s why it’s so important to me that we’ve been able to stay together as long as we have, and hopefully ongoing. It’s priceless; I can’t even calculate what that’s contributed to my development. Most of the developments I’ve had and the ideas I’ve had as a composer have been projected into this group.”

Vandermark cites other longstanding groups, such as Peter Brötzmann’s Die Like a Dog, Ab Baars Trio, ICP Orchestra and Duke Ellington Orchestra, as inspirations for keeping the 5 together as long as he can.

“When I think of Ellington’s band-I think of this group in those kinds of terms. Not in terms of the artistic achievement or anything like that, but his effort to keep a band on the road, to keep it working, to hold it together, to keep personnel. And writing to the personality of the band, which is a major concern. With all the groups I work with, the reason that the bands sound different is because I’m consciously writing for who’s in that band as much as I can.

“Having worked so much with the 5 over this period of time has been really fantastic because each individual has developed in different kinds of ways. They’re all connected to the aesthetics that we’ve been working on, but I think the records speak about the changes that we’ve had individually and collectively, and that I find completely fascinating and part of why I do what I do.”

As the band breaks apart to eat its preconcert meal, Vandermark stays onstage to warm up on his horns. He keeps trying out a tricky passage on his tenor saxophone, and as he falters Vandermark lets out audible groans of frustration.

He continues to play his sax even as the audience starts to dribble in from the bar next door. Vandermark seems oblivious to that behind-the-curtain stuff that most musicians engage in, avoiding the crowd like a bride does her groom before the vows. Once Vandermark feels that he’s sufficiently knocked out the passage he was practicing, he doesn’t leave to go backstage. He picks up his bass clarinet and starts on another chromatic run.

It’s almost an uncomfortable feeling to watch Vandermark warm up as the crowd stares at him, the fourth wall shattered. As the loud music and chatter filter in from the saloon one room over, joined by the persistent and incredibly loud creak from the bar door, the first rock band upstairs begins to play. Vandermark puts down his horn and checks his pocket watch.

It’s 10 minutes to show time. The bleach and ammonia smell has given way to cigarettes and beer. Vandermark ducks backstage to get the rest of the band.

The jazz club is his.

Vandermark on Rollins, Trane

Just as Atavistic has done with the last two Vandermark 5 CDs, Acoustic Machine (2001) and Burn the Incline (1999), the label offered a version of Airports for Light with a limited edition live disc. The previous freebies featured the 5’s powerhouse takes on avant-garde compositions by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Don Cherry, Jimmy Giuffre and more, compiled last year as the two-CD Free Jazz Classics. With Airports for Light’s bonus album, Vandermark decided to honor one composer: Sonny Rollins.

“I think Rollins has been so overlooked as a member of the avant-garde,” Vandermark says. “A lot of people don’t give him the credit he deserves for pushing the tenor saxophone into very new directions. The way he changed the tonal qualities of the horn, the expressiveness of the horn, is really forward-thinking, and there really aren’t many people who have adopted those kinds of directions that he was using. Everyone talks about Rollins and how great he is, but they don’t really put him in the category of a John Coltrane.”

Vandermark loves all of Rollins’ 1960s playing, but he cites three albums in particular: Our Man in Jazz (RCA, 1962) with Don Cherry, Alfie (Impulse, 1966) and East Broadway Rundown (Impulse, 1966). Tunes from the last two are among those compositions that Vandermark interprets on the bonus CD Six for Rollins, including the Alfie suite (“He’s Younger Than You Are,” “Street Runner With Child,” “Transition Theme for Minor Blues, or Little Malcolm Loves His Dad”) as well as “East Broadway Rundown,” “Strode Rode,” “The Bridge,” “John S.” and “Freedom Suite, Part Two.”

David S. Ware and Branford Marsalis did excellent Rollins tributes last year, both taking on the formidable “Freedom Suite,” and Vandermark was momentarily worried that “it’s going to look like I jumped on the bandwagon. But the truth of the matter is, this stuff is so good that I decided, well, screw it, I’m just going to do it anyway,” he laughs. “The ‘Freedom Suite,’ the writing is tremendous. The way Rollins uses the trio, let’s say, like an orchestra. There’s very specific writing and organization of the material for a trio. Even now that’s unusual. His use of the jazz trio is a high-water mark of that format.

“Rhythmically I think his way of expressing ideas is extremely original. He’ll space his notes and his phrases in very unpredictable ways. It’s almost like he’s stretching the time out or compressing it into bursts of sounds. If you compare his rhythmic expressions to someone like Coltrane, who had a more consistent attack in terms of rhythmic phrasing-most everything broken down into 16th-note bursts against the time, and these sheets of sound-if you compare that to the way Rollins phrases stuff rhythmically, Rollins to me is much more complex. And there’s a lot more room to use rhythm as a mode of expression in Rollins’ phrasing than in a lot of other saxophone players-or instrumentalists, period.

“I’ve had discussions with people about this and some think I’m nuts, so it’s definitely a subjective thing, but if you compare Rollins’ approach to improvisation, his melodic-thematic approach, and compare it to Coltrane’s, which is very harmonically derived-and you compare Rollins’ work with Don Cherry and then Coltrane’s work with Don Cherry on The Avant-Garde, Rollins’ approach is much more open. He sounds very free and capable of dealing with Cherry’s approach and the rhythm section. The music moves in incredibly open ways in Our Man in Jazz, and it sounds right at home with what Cherry was playing. You compare that to The Avant-Garde-every time Cherry is playing with that rhythm section, the music feels liberated, maybe in connection with the way those guys were playing with Ornette. And then when Coltrane plays, to me there’s a real feeling of him trying to utilize his harmonic concepts in a construct that isn’t meant for them. He still sounds great, but he sounds a little anachronistic in that situation, because he’s running these series of harmonic passages in a music that isn’t designed to deal with that. It sounds out of place.

“Coltrane’s approach, even with all the room it had in it, was also kind of a trap or a harmonic box, and that is why I think Coltrane was so enthused by the work of Albert Ayler. Because Ayler’s music, though it had a harmonic basis, in a sense, and was very strong melodically, in a sense, he decimated-he totally took apart the sounds of stuff. The hymn-gospel qualities of Ayler’s work are connected to Coltrane’s work; you can see how Coltrane could hear a way to a more free expression through Ayler’s material. Whereas Ornette’s material, the way it worked with the fluid harmony, was totally alien to the harmonic thinking that Coltrane had been building his whole mindset on. In that way, I find Rollins’ music of that period is much freer than Coltrane’s and much more open-ended.”

Listening Pleasures

While on tour, Vandermark says, “I picked up a bunch of reggae stuff-an Augustus Pablo reissue, some earlier stuff by the Heptones, the Gladiators, the Pioneers. And I love the Soul Jazz [label] reissues; they’ve been doing a really great series, it’s fantastic: I picked up the Studio One Roots compilation. I picked up the two latest editions in the Ethiopiques series on Buda Musique, volumes 12 [Konso Music and Songs] and 13 [Ethiopian Groove]. That series is phenomenal, just incredible. I picked up an album by Bernard Parmegiani, an electronics composer whose work I really, really like. Kevin Drumm turned me on to him. And I picked up an Anthony Braxton reissue from the BYG Actuel series that is slowly trickling out; I think it’s called This Time, with Leroy Jenkins, Wadada Leo Smith and Steve McCall.”


Saxes: Selmer Balanced Action baritone; Selmer Mark VI tenor; Selmer B-flat clarinet; Leblanc bass clarinet.

Mouthpieces: “At this point I prefer the hard-rubber mouthpieces as opposed to the metal ones-on the saxophones anyway. I use a Morgan for the tenor, a Berg Larsen for the baritone, a Bari Buddy DeFranco model for the clarinet and a standard Vandoren B45 for bass clarinet.”

Reeds: “On the saxophones and bass clarinet I use Rico Jazz Select. They’re pretty hard-I’m using #4 medium. And on the clarinet I’m using Rico Royal #31/2. A few years ago I was using much softer reeds, and I dunno what’s happened. It may have been because of working a lot with Mats Gustafsson and Peter Brötzmann,” he laughs. “The softer reeds were just getting too soft-there wasn’t any resistance on it. The hard reeds, you tend to get more volume out of them. The main thing I’m looking for when I’m playing is to be as comfortable as possible, so I can focus more on the musical and not the technical aspects of what I’m doing.” Originally Published