Music in perpetual motion
Ken Vandermark moves forward with Marker
Speaking over the phone from his home in Chicago, Ken Vandermark eases into a conversation about his latest group, Marker, with a dry laugh. “Sometimes I get sick of the saxophone, which is something I struggle with a lot,” Vandermark says. “What do you do with it? How do you deal with an instrument that has so many associations throughout jazz history?”
The casualness of such a statement coming from the celebrated fixture of Chicago’s thriving jazz scene is kept in check by the cramped tone in his voice. Since Chicago’s jazz renaissance of the early ‘90s, Vandermark has honed a personal imperative to move beyond conventional tonal music. He perpetually engages the symbiotic relationships between his solo work and collaborations with other musicians, pushing the boundaries of compositional and instrumental music. Vandermark’s dense body of work is bound by a punk-inflected avant-garde jazz sound and vision that’s as complex and energetic as possible for a saxophonist to produce, wielding a balance of composition and improvisation.
Over the years, Vandermark has performed with such incendiary groups as the Vandermark 5, Spaceways Inc, and the DKV Trio, turning out stacks of titles such as 1997’s Baraka (Okka Disk), 2005’s The Color of Memory (Atavistic), and 2008’s Only the Devil Has No Dreams (Jazzwerkstatt), the latter featuring European free jazz saxophonists Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson.
He has also paired up with members of Dutch punk ensemble the Ex and Chicago noise rock outfit the Flying Luttenbachers for deeper dives into stretching traditional harmonic language.
In 1999, when he was just 35 years old, Vandermark was awarded a $265,000 MacArthur Fellowship, which he used to continue exploring his passions for American jazz composition and European improvisation.
The thread tying these chapters of Vandermark’s career together is a never-ending desire to reach beyond his comfort level, to transcend his own musical limitations, and to continue growing as an artist. Vandermark plays tenor and baritone sax and Bb and bass clarinet. Reaching beyond their limitations, physically and mentally, is often a Herculean task after spending so many years with them. That’s how interacting with an ensemble opens new musical avenues to pursue. With Marker, Vandermark leads a group featuring two guitarists, Andrew Clinkman and Steve Marquette, drummer Phil Sudderberg, and violinist and keyboard player Macie Stewart. It’s an ensemble he pieced together to challenge his abilities from every angle.
A quick scan of his many CDs reveals that Vandermark hasn’t composed much music with guitars in mind since guitarist Jeb Bishop stopped playing with Vandermark 5 in the mid aughts. Keyboards are also rarely part of his program, and the monstrous bass that underscores a large swathe of his work is absent in Marker. “I was forced to write differently and to think about composing differently,” he says. “Most of The tools I’ve got just don’t function in that band at all. Creating that environment for myself was very purposeful.”
Vandermark launches into the work with ferocity, precision, and variety as Marker shifts from a chamber ensemble sound to a heavy, rock-based sound, stamping in time a wholly new chapter of Vandermark’s perpetual motion.