Asked how he could be so prolific, singer-painter-bandleader Jon Langford replied, “I’m brutally efficient and highly compartmentalized.” Saxophonist Ken Vandermark could say the same. Like Langford, he moved to Chicago and catalyzed a music scene. Since the mid ’90s he’s juggled dozens of bands and released six to nine albums a year. Some of these are chance encounters: Get a set of musicians together, turn on the tape, and hope magic happens. But for Vandermark, purist improvisation is just one more concept. Take Free Fall, for instance.
Free Fall is Vandermark’s clarinet-piano-bass trio, named after Jimmy Giuffre’s famous 1963 album. But unlike Ken Vandermark’s Joe Harriott Project (Straight Lines), this isn’t a tribute band, just one that tries to create something new within the framework of Giuffre’s lineup and language. Their debut, Furnace (Wobbly Rail), feels tentative. The first half (mostly Vandermark pieces) tests the band’s parameters, while the second half (mostly pieces by bandmates Havard Wiik and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten) slouches into prettiness. But neither half sounds like Giuffre any more than, say, Mingus sounded like Ellington—most obviously, Vandermark’s clarinet is dirty and musclebound, like his sax.
Free Fall is the second of Vandermark’s album concept bands. The first was School Days, named after the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd Quartet album. Jeb Bishop plays Ruddish trombone, but Vandermark takes his cues from ’60s saxophonists like Archie Shepp. As with Free Fall, the rhythm section is from Norway—Flaten on bass, and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums—and the band is fiercely responsive. Like Vandermark’s, Nilssen-Love’s jazz chops assume a rough-hewn physicality that derives as much from rock—a generational shift that crops up all over contemporary jazz. Nilssen-Love has cut several duo albums with saxophonists. The one with Vandermark, Dual Pleasure (Smalltown Supersound), is one of those improvised encounters where magic does happen—an intense, intimate, engaging clash of drums and reeds, each provoking the other.
Vandermark’s concept bands evolve: Each distinct group opens up new opportunities, setting the initial concepts adrift. His trio with Hamid Drake (drums) and Nate McBride (bass, mostly electric) initially came together to record Spaceways Incorporated (2000), which interleaved Funkadelic grooves with Sun Ra spaciness. It was cool, but the follow-up, Version Soul, was groundbreaking: With all original material, it both expanded on the notion of funky free jazz and on the huge talents of the band. McBride’s three tunes keyed off funk lines, while Vandermark’s six followed his habit of dedicating pieces to touchstones—usually a musician, but sometimes an artist or a friend, anyone who inspires the germ of an idea—ranging here from ska keyboardist Jackie Mittoo and Sly bassist Larry Graham to the suave baritone sax of Serge Chaloff and the fiery tenor sax of Frank Wright.
Then there’s Furniture Music, Vandermark’s inevitable solo album. As far back as Anthony Braxton’s For Alto, these things have usually been plug ugly, but Vandermark keeps this one fresh by switching horns (tenor and baritone sax, B-flat and bass clarinet), and keeping the intricately composed pieces short—this is not blow-first, think-later stuff. The Evan Parker dedication is shrill and warbly, the Lennie Tristano is neo-abstract bebop, the John Cage wanders, and the Jaap Blonk sounds like a foghorn on fire. A tough listen overall, but amazing.
But all of these are just side trips. Vandermark’s flagship band since 1996, and the main showcase for his writing, has been the Vandermark 5. With two reed players, trombone, bass, and drums, Vandermark gets a big band sound out of a manageable group, much as Mingus did. And while he plays his parts, as with Ellington his real instrument is the band. Their latest album, Airports for Light, is the most complex and varied of the series, with standout pieces for Rahsaan Roland Kirk (which nails Kirk’s tone and dynamism perfectly) and Curtis Mayfield (a noirish soundtrack that sets off the album’s best solo), and a big-band finale whose connection to Sonny Rollins is less than obvious.
Vandermark’s dedications say much about his relationship to tradition, which he mines assiduously for ideas, but his development of those ideas, and his own style of play, are unique. This may have something to do with how much history envelops us today. More likely, though, it’s just that his father was a free jazz fanatic who turned his son on to the likes of Joe McPhee at an impressionable age. But the dedications also help organize his prodigious work ethic—expect another six to nine albums in the coming year. In 1999 Vandermark was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, in part (so he says) as an experiment to see what the money would make possible. If only all investments paid off so handsomely.