Ken Vandermark: Raw and Refined
“ It took me a long time to figure out that Cecil Taylor's music had conventionally notated material involved. ”
Sometimes stumbling blocks and dumb luck can lead to a more satisfyingly final presentation than if everything went as originally planned. This was intended to be a phone interview from the outset, however equipment failures combined with difficult scheduling conspired to turn this into an email interview.
Despite Ken's Herculean effort to key paragraph after paragraph into a tiny BlackBerry keypad, it became difficult for him to keep track and the written word (anybody's) lacks a certain visceral flavor of the personality behind the words. Fortunately Ken agreed to another phone conversation and as a result, the reader is now presented with two sides of Ken; one represented by transcribed spoken language from January 20, 2006, and the other appears as supplemental email Q&A. Email material predates the phone conversation and is indicated by "AAJ-e" and "KV-e" to help differentiate between what's what. Also of note; while I heard Ken very clearly during our phone conversation, our connection was such that Ken sometimes strained to hear me.
A tremendous "Thank You" to Ken for willing to see this interview through.
Sound and Texture
Making a Tour Happen
The Live Versus Recorded Experience
The Territory Band and FME
The Paradox of Inspiration
Appreciating Dissonance and Chaos
The Rigors of Touring
Music with Hyphenated Feelings
Invention Versus Discovery
Beauty in Free Jazz
Who Do You Play For?
All About Jazz: How did today's rehearsal go?
Ken Vandermark: Oh it was good. We're getting ready to work on a tour with the Vandermark 5 in North America and I've written some new pieces in the last few weeks to try on the tour, so we'll have a few more new things to present. It's real interesting having Fred [Lonberg-Holm] in the band and finding new ways to work with the group and the instrumentation; it's been great.
AAJ: Every member of the band is exceptionally versatileswitching from a percussive role to a more melodic one, and then into a textural mode at a moment's noticeand yet there's a consistent feel or approach that runs through your work.
KV: Yeah, the idea of the group in the beginning was to just have a small, or smaller, ensemble that could have the largest possible orchestral and stylistic possibilities. Even with the personnel changes that have happened in the last, almost ten years, that initial idea has really been true to the conception of the band throughout its history. So having Fred...the interest in asking him to join the group was connected to that. As a cellist and the way he approaches the instrument, the band can move into a lot of new music, chamber ensemble possibilities more dramatically than before. It also gives a chance to dip into, I don't know, more processed types of electronic sounds that Fred can deal with which we had to abandon when Jeb Bishop stopped playing electric guitar. So it's given us a very broad range of stylistic shifts that from piece to piece, or within pieces that in some ways is more dramatic than before.
AAJ: In the opening of "Killing Floor," the first track on Territory Band 4's Company Switch, there's a sound that's hard to pin down. It might be a horn blown with extended techniques, or maybe a horn filtered electronically.
KV: That's one of the interesting things about that particular group and why I want to have the ensemble be an electro-acoustic group. Because the way that Keven Drumm worked with the band in the initial stages and now Lasse Marhaug has been working with the band, their textural and sonic capabilities have a tendency just to almost unconsciously push a lot of the players into areas of sound that they maybe wouldn't normally gravitate to in a normal acoustic environment. And also, with the use of extended techniques...the horn players and the string players in the group, and blending that with the electronics, it does give this ambiguity about where the sound sources are that creates, maybe, an added level of tension to the way the music is developed and constructed.
AAJ: Have you ever taken heat for incorporating electronic into an otherwise acoustic band?
KV: No that's never been a problem. I mean, people have asked why I've chosen to do that and it's always been out of curiosity and expanding the, the pallet of sounds but no one's ever complained. In the earlier period of the Vandermark 5 there were certain people who weren't happy that there was electric guitar involved in the music, and then I think that even dissipated after a certain point. It was clear that I was interested in working in a broader range of ideas than whatever "free jazz" is defined as. But that was the only time that there was a sort of like, a criticism of like, well why...the band sounds like a rock band on this tune, this isn't jazz. Sorry but there's a lot of music to play and this is part of it. But as far as electronics go; no.
AAJ-e: There are times when your tenor and baritone almost sound like a distorted guitar. Do other instrumental timbres influence your sound, your personal conception?
KV-e: About half of the sonic possibilities on the reed instruments I play are associated with conventional pitch. That leaves a lot of room for other sounds. Why not explore them too. I'm extremely curious about different kinds of music, different methods of organizing sound. I want to integrate all of the things I hear that are exciting and find out if I can get them to work in an improviser's context. All of this means that trying to expand the range of timbral possibilities on the horns is just a natural extension of my musical interests, and those of the artists before me.