Jazz messenger 

What are 120 people (trust me, that’s a nice crowd) doing out on a Tuesday, any Tuesday, in Chicago’s hippest underground rock club, listening to avant-garde jazz?

As tenor saxophonist Ken Vandermark explains it, sometimes you’ve just got to bring the music wherever the people will hear you. He explains, “That’s a real key” he says, “the willingness to play in locations that aren’t directly related to the history of performance spaces for jazz — the jazz clubs, or lofts, like the loft scene in New York. If you’re willing to bring it to other places, suddenly there’s a sense that the audience can be a lot bigger than we originally thought, because we’re putting it into where they want to go.”

The audience has the potential to get that much bigger as Vandermark turns Workbench Furniture into an unlikely hotbed of destination-out jazz sounds at this year’s AMG Edgefest in Ann Arbor. In this most eclectic of festivals that will see everything from the triumphant homecoming of drummer Gerald Cleaver to the pot-pixie space-rock spells of Daevid Allen’s Gong, Vandermark’s sets Saturday night with the Vandermark 5 and the DKV Trio will surely provide two of many highlights.

For most of the past decade, Vandermark has been working somewhere between double and triple time, developing his own dynamic sax voice and cultivating an audience by playing anywhere from Windy City dives to Chicago’s Cultural Center. One night you might find him among European stalwarts such as Peter Brotzmann, who helped reinvent this free jazz stuff back in the ’70s. The next, you might find him down at the Velvet Lounge, sitting in with hometown free-jazz hero Fred Anderson. No matter what, you’ll hear Vandermark’s innovative expressions on tenor sax and bass clarinet, expressions which run the gamut from skronking extensions of sax technique to lyrical, introspective, post-free-jazz balladry, from tight compositions to explorations of the most out-there improvisation.

Every Tuesday, Vandermark leads his group, the Vandermark 5, through his charts of challenging avant-garde jazz at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. “We try to manipulate a wide range of materials and incorporate as many different styles of music that are interesting to me, and that can hopefully inspire interesting improvisation,” says Vandermark. Joining him in the 5’s frontline are alto and tenor sax man Dave Rempis and trombonist Jeb Bishop, who doubles on some incendiary electric guitar. And with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Tim Mulvenna laying down heavy rhythms and experimental vamps, it’s not hard to hear the appeal the Vandermark 5 presents to adventurous lovers of any kind of music. Their swings from overblown freedom blasts into post-bop and back again through avant-jazz-funk find favor among jazz-heads and rockers alike.

Noting the ever-expanding free-jazz demographic, Vandermark comments, “There’s been a shift to include a lot of people who come out of a listening background that’s more connected to underground rock. When I was first playing, most of the people who came out were improvised music fans. The realization was that once you started playing places that included a wider range of listeners, then you were going to get a wider range of listeners.”

Contrasting the V5’s use of charts as springboards into the out, the DKV Trio is almost completely spontaneous, improvised jazz of the moment, with Kessler on bass and the phenomenal Hamid Drake on drums. A man of muscular moves behind the kit, Drake juggles rhythms the way others might juggle their sticks. His mix of improvisation and groove also lends itself to Spaceways, the trio Vandermark and Drake have with bassist Nate McBride, devoted to the tunes of Sun Ra and Funkadelic. Spaceways is just one of a half-dozen or so projects that help keep Vandermark’s playing schedule tight; the music’s on stage several nights a week.

His commitment to the music and to cultivating a community hasn’t gone unnoticed. Besides the rewards of critical attention and developing an audience of enthusiastic listeners, last year he received a MacArthur Fellowship, giving him a $265,000 “genius” award in recognition of his creative endeavors. Other innovative American jazz people have received the grants before: Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy, Anthony Braxton. But this is the first time the MacArthur Foundation has given the award to someone so young (midcareer is still on the other side of Vandermark’s horizon). Obviously, the powers that be thought that Vandermark’s potential would be a good investment.

Vandermark rattles off a litany of things he’s done in the past year or so that probably wouldn’t have been economically feasible without the MacArthur award: organizing a Peter Brotzmann tour in the States, forming the Territory Band (his large, composition-oriented group), bringing from overseas such innovative artists as Mats Gustafsson and Paul Lovens who otherwise might not have made the trip, giving his band an increase in pay. And then there’s the awareness of creative improvised music he’s helped bring to new audiences, something you can’t put a price tag on.

Even with all of these fulfilling activities, Vandermark still sees a worthy challenge when it comes to bringing his sounds to larger audiences. He explains, “Great improvised music is great music, and I think the biggest problem is trying to get audiences to realize that this is just amazing music when it’s played well by passionate people, just as amazing as any other kind of music. It just works with different kinds of materials. You don’t have to have an Anthony Braxton record to get to what the Vandermark 5 are doing or what the (Dutch avant-jazz absurdists, not the absurd rapping clowns) ICP Orchestra is doing. All you have to have is a relatively open mind and open ears and an interest in music.”

So, what are people going to be doing on a Saturday night, in an Ann Arbor furniture store, listening to avant-garde jazz? If you’ve got ears, you’ll want to find out.

Greg Baise gets electric in the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com

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