Head Cheese

The Vandermark 5’s music is action-packed. Rhythms charge then retreat; instruments drop in and out; harmonies pulsate between sweetness and dissonance; solos rocket out of the ensemble. The youngest jazz musician to snag a MacArthur "genius grant," leader Ken Vandermark, 41, heads or collaborates in numerous ensembles, but the 5 is the center star in the Chicago saxophonist’s constellation. Their latest release, The Color of Memory (Atavistic), is a rambunctious swan song to founding member Jeb Bishop. After debating whether to go on, Vandermark says, they wound up replacing the trombonist with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. Paradoxically, Vandermark says, they can now tilt more to chamber-style "new music" and rock harder, sometimes in the same piece. Vandermark’s current monomanias:

5. Mourning: The death of Derek Bailey is a major blow. He’s a really significant figure in the music that I work on, in a broad sense, as an improviser

4. Mulling: The American political situation is always on my mind, and now with the Supreme Court appointment, it’s up front. Hopefully it will shift to something more positive than it’s been for the last several years.

3. Listening: The Miles Davis Cellar Door Sessions that came out on Columbia. It’s been the source of positive inspiration to me.

2. Reading: I’ve been reading a lot on the sculptor David Smith, and there’s going to be a retrospective exhibition of his work in New York.

1. Plotting: I would say I’m trying to concentrate on realizing some new ideas about new ways to construct music. It might be a year or so before I can move forward because it’s going to take a lot of work.

Here are excerpts from our interview with Vandermark:

On the late guitarist Derek Bailey, who died Dec. 25 in London at age 75, reportedly from complications of an unspecified motor neuron disease. Bailey is considered one of the most important free improvisers, particularly as part of the European scene.

Initially, people were under the impression that he was suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome — and I think those were the earlier signs of the disease that finally killed him — so the last period of his life must have been extremely difficult. He put out a record called Carpal Tunnel, on John Zorn’s label [Tzadik], which came out in the fall and kind of documents the decay of his ability to play. And there are pieces from like three weeks into his diagnosis and 12 weeks and whatnot. It’s almost an overview of the loss of the ability to do what he had done for his whole life — and it was an amazing recording. But it’s even more poignant now, considering it was the beginning of what ended up being the end.

To be honest, when I first heard his music I didn’t care for it very much. I found it to be, to my ears, sort of aleatory, random. And, thankfully, I was able to hear him perform in Chicago in the early to mid-’90s, when he did a tour of the states with Greg Bendian, and — seeing him play — within the first two minutes or 20 seconds it was clear that Bailey was in control of all of the things he was doing. And to see that forced me to reassess everything that I thought I was understanding about his music. It was quite dramatic. It was one of the more epiphany-like experiences, and it further emphasized for me the importance of seeing improvised music in a live context and the importance of seeing the musicians do what they do in person.

From that point I’ve been listening to his music, trying to read whatever interviews I could find with him. He’s like all of the improvisers that I like — even if they are coming out of a more traditional sense of what jazz has been, they’re all very, very strong individuals. You know who it is within a few notes — the way that they sound, their phrasing, their choice of notes and rhythms and all of these things. Generally the ones that I’m most interested in are people who innovated different kinds of ideas of what it meant to play improvised music, and Derek Bailey is one of those people changing the way we could think about sound and space and rhythm.

I liked his book [Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music]. One of the things about the book is that he included many different kinds of music [from baroque to Indian], you know, music outside of what is normally considered to be the genre that’s associated with improvisation which is jazz. In some cases his perspective is, as it should be, pretty personal. But there’s a lot of interesting insight, and the fact that a practicing musician — and the kind of musician that he was is completely fantastic.

One of my regrets is that I never had a chance to even really sit down and talk to him. I saw him perform a couple times, and I would have loved to collaborate with him if even for just a concert.

On my Web site (kenvandermark.com), for this last posting there are 10 Bailey albums that I’ve been listening to, Carpal Tunnel being one of them. But there is a ton of stuff that he did. His record Ballads, a solo record that Zorn also released on Tzadik, I think, is incredible. I think that for people who maybe aren’t familiar with his music, it may be a good place to start because it has in its basis actual jazz and jazz standards that Bailey used to play in the very, very early part of his career. It has a different sense of melodic grounding than some of his other solo stuff.


On the changes in his group, the Vandermark 5, which formed in 1996.

Jeb Bishop decided to leave the group last fall, and since he’d been with the band since the very beginning, I was concerned with whether or not the group should continue without him. He was someone who brought different kinds of ideas to the music, and as he developed as a player all those things affected the way the band worked. When Jeb was involved, with the albums and the tours, I think the band was always shifting and changing and growing. And for me the only reason to continue to do a group is if it’s moving, going somewhere new. I’m not really interested in being a repertory band. When we go out and play, I don’t want to know what’s going to happen each night, I want to be surprised. So I met with the other members of the band. I said we have two options: We either go for it in a totally different way or we call it quits. And everybody in the band was really interested in continuing. Fred Lonberg-Holm’s name came up almost immediately as the best option, and he was really interested, and the more I thought about it — both for his instrument, the cello, and the kind of player he is as an improviser — it made more and more sense. There’s a number of differences having the two strings and two reeds with the drums. With the cello, we can do things that are more maybe "new music"-oriented in a different kind of way than with the trombone. And with the cello and the way that Fred plays it, we’re able to get it to some territory that is maybe more related to my interest in certain kinds of rock that we had to abandon when Jeb Bishop stopped playing electric guitar. So it’s kind of a paradox; with the instrumental change and Fred’s playing, we’ve been able to lean further toward a new music sound and further toward a more electrified rhythmically rock-oriented-type noise thing — and sometimes in the same piece. I think Fred has really reinvigorated the group and pushed it in a bunch of new directions. You can’t ask for more than that, whether a group has been together for 10 years or two years. Send comments to [email protected]

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