Ken Vandermark: Raw and Refined
AAJ: It sound like it takes a festival invitation to make a tour happen.
KV: Yeah that's very true, I mean initially when the MacArthur money was there, I could bring the group into Chicago and we could rehearse and do some concerts with small groups and the large group, and do some recording. That was the way the thing started but in the future it's really going to be necessary to find ways to interest presenters who have some serious funding. I mean, the group runs around 11 or 12 people and they're scattered in Europe and in Chicago so it takes quite a bit of money just to get the travel organized. And on top of that you have the fees for the artists, for the rehearsal time and for the performance timeand recordings if that can work outso there's no question that it takes a presenter with funding to do that and that usually means festivals.
This means work in the United States is quite limited because the festivals that present improvised music tend to be fairly conservative in their interests musical interests. The festival work I've done in North America has been in Canada, it's either been in Vancouver or in Victoriaville outside Montreal, but the festivals in the United States so far haven't really seemed interested in the kind of work I do. Which means the odds are good that the Territory Band won't have the opportunity to perform outside of Chicago anytime in the near future.
AAJ: That's a sad state of affairs, but I'm just glad you can keep the band going.
KV: [laughs] Yeah, at this point that's what I'm shooting for! So as long as I can do that, maybe there will be a change in the future where there will be more of a chance for the group to play in the U.S.
AAJ-e: There's a set of unreleased recordings of you and Paal Nilssen-Love performing as a duo at Norway's Sting JazzKlubb in 2005. While reeds are typically mixed in front of drums, these recordings feature Paal up front and the result is phenomenal. With so many possibilities, how is instrumental placement determined in your recordings? Are they mixed with public expectation in mind?
KV-e: The recording you're referring to is a bootleg concert tape, not a professional document. Paal's up front because he was louder than me, we were playing acoustically and there are times when I can't match his volume level on the drum kit. With all the label releases I've been responsible for, there has been a real effort to present the band as it would sound live, balanced in a club. Those are the kinds of albums I prefer to listen to so I like work with that kind of presentation.
AAJ-e: What are your thoughts on bootleg recordings? Do they serve a purpose as, for instance, the Grateful Dead believe? Or do they potentially harm the artist?
KV-e: My attitude towards bootleg recordings is that if I get a copy on an equivalent format, and if I am asked for permission, it is okay to make a tape of a concert. As I've already mention, having examples of the music to listen to and to compare can only help build an understanding of the reality of working with the improvised music process. When I collaborate with musicians who disagree with this perspective, I have told people who have asked that it's not okay to record because I respect the artists who want to try and have more control over what's available.
AAJ: Did your work with Peter Brotzmann's Chicago Tentet inspire the Territory Band's creation, or maybe a limitation within the Vandermark 5?
KV: The work with Peter in the Tentet...I wouldn't say that it inspired the idea of organizing the Territory band, I mean it's quite a separate thing and to me, the work with the Tentet is so individual that I don't really associate it with the other projects that I'm involved in, even though some of the musicians overlap. The work is quite different and [Brötzmann's Chicago Tentet is] defined in so many ways by Peter's band-leading skills and his interest in aesthetics. I'm really happy to be involved in that project.
Although it makes a lot of sense, and people have brought this up before that the Territory Band is kind of an extension of the Vandermark 5, that really isn't true either. My interest in working with those musicians, both in the 5 and in the Territory Band ensemble, is really because they're among the best musicians in Chicago that I can work withthe best musicians I can work with period, I shouldn't just limit it to Chicagoand so it's less an outgrowth of the Vandermark 5 and more an inclusion of those particular musicians because of the skills they have. I can see how people would maybe make that assumption based on the fact that those musicians are in both groups, aside from Tim Daisy. It really is connected to my interest in organizing music for a large ensemble. I mean if you listen to the music of Peter's Tentet or if you listen to the music of the 5, I think it should be fairly evident that the way the [Territory Band's] music is organized is considerably different.
So I think it's more about pursuing those ideas that I might have and pushing myself to try to incorporate the broadest range of ideas I have, and that maybe...push towards looking for new solutions to the problem of writing music, or the issues of writing music for improvisers. It's less inspired by the way that the Tentet is organized although I would say that, you know the general inspiration I get from working with Peter in that band and in Sonore obviously affects the way I think about the music I play so there's no question that there's some kind of relationship. But it's less a direct outgrowth and more a parallel set of developments.
AAJ-e: Does the release of Cuts, which follows fairly closely on the heals of Underground's release, signal a shift in project priorities? Has FME [Free Music Ensemble] become a more important project than it was in the past?
KV-e: Since Underground was released in spring of 2004, the distance between it and Cuts is pretty standard for the way I work, documenting ongoing projects about once a year to illustrate their aesthetic developments. I have been trying to organize a system of bands that represent personal ideas about solo, duo (with Paal Nilssen-Love), trio (with FME), mid-size (with the Vandermark 5), and large ensemble (with the Territory Band) work for contemporary improvising units. So I don't think my priorities have headed in a different direction, they've expanded.
AAJ: It seems that FME is becoming more of a vehicle for compositions.
KV: Well, FME is really connected to...[takes a large breath] the compositional approach to that band is quite a bit different than any of the other groups I'm working with, and my interest in developing a sort of fluid modular approach to the writing where the different members of the group can affect the flow of the structure of the pieces as they go. It's been a really fruitful way of working and I would say that the compositional stuff is extremely important, but it kind of interfaces with the improvising differently than with, let's say the music of the Vandermark 5 or some of the other groups. And in that way, I think maybe the thing you're talking about, the compositions, I would say that they more dramatically impact the playing. It's more integrated in a flowing organic sense than it is with the Vandermark 5 or some of the other groups that I write for where the written material may set up a framework for playing, or may indicate shifts in direction of the pieces where as with FME, the bass can be the lead or the drums can be the lead, and all that kind of stuff can change rhythmically and melodically in a pretty radical way on the fly and from performance-to-performance. The compositions affect the material in a very different kind of way, if that makes sense.
AAJ: Yes, it does. One of the striking features of FME is how in listening to a particular piece, even though all three members are involved, a duet between horn and drums becomes the focus. But in listening to the same piece again, the focus seemingly shifts to a duet between the drums and bassand yet it's the same piece of recorded music.
KV: Yeah, I think that part of the idea of the group is to try and reduce the hierarchy between...the perspective in let's say a lot of conventional groups, the drums are the timekeeper to simplify it, and the bass may be as part of the rhythm section and defines the harmonic framework of the music that's being played. With the FME group, I guess maybe in part it's been influenced by my interest in Ornette Coleman's music and his concept of Harmolodics, at least as far as I can try to understand it, about reducing this hierarchy or breaking it down anyway and reducing the specific role playing that happens so much in a lot of jazz, and to try to make the possibilities flow into each other more.
AAJ-e: Your personal playing tends to be more lyrical or less abstracted with FME than in what you've accomplished with the Vandermark 5 or Territory band. Does your approach to playing change from one project to another? Is it a matter of conscience choice or is it something beyond design?
KV-e: In each situation my playing is directly affected by the material and by the players. So I don't take an intentionally different strategy in my own improvising from group to group, but the environment changes the musical choices I might make at any given time. The music I compose for each band has specific principles that lead the music into particular areas; otherwise I wouldn't work with so many different projects. The same holds true of the impact individual artists have on me; the way that Tim Daisy, Hamid Drake, Paul Lovens, Paul Lytton, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Michael Zerang, all play drums dramatically alters the way I play the saxophone or clarinet when working with them. Of course whether this leads to something more lyrical and less abstract is open to interpretation.