Music hath healing powers

Jazz musician Ken Vandermark strives to explore new vistas

Jazz musician Ken Vandermark (photo credit: GEERT VANDEPOELE)
Jazz musician Ken Vandermark
(photo credit: GEERT VANDEPOELE)
Many years ago Arnie Lawrence, the late jazz saxophonist and educator who did so much for the Israeli jazz scene when he made aliya in the late 1990s, told me that “jazz musicians are warriors, not worriers.” That nicely alliterated piece of insight has remained with me over the years, and every so often one comes across an artist who fits that bill perfectly. Ken Vandermark certainly suits.
The 52-year-old, Chicago-based reed player has been at the forefront of avant-garde musical endeavor for more than three decades, mixing it with a pantheon of cutting-edge artists such as saxophonists Fred Anderson and Von Freeman, drummer-percussionist Hamid Drake, and German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann.
Israelis who like their jazz to challenge rather than soothe them and prefer to leave a show with something to mull over should revel in the sounds they will hear from Vandermark and his quartet tomorrow (Saturday) evening (8 p.m. and 10 p.m.) at the Levontin 7 club in Tel Aviv, which is celebrating its 11th anniversary.
When I inquired how he was as we began our telephone interview, Vandermark said he was “pretty busy.” Talk about stating the obvious… The man plays more than 100 gigs a year, continues to record at a dizzying pace – to date, he has put out more than 40 albums under his own name and played on well over 100 more – and performs with all manner of bands. He plays saxophone and clarinet and has garnered kudos for his compositional work, which takes in multi-layered material and manages to strike a fine balance between intricate orchestration and hell-for-leather improvisation.
The Levontin 7 crowds will be getting more of the latter when Vandermark takes the stage along with trombonist Steve Swell, bassist Jon Rune Strom and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love.
The reedman is perfectly happy to be kept gainfully employed.
“I can’t complain about the people I get to perform with and the places I get to travel to, to play my music,” he states. “It is kind of chaotic,” he adds, “but I feel very fortunate to have the privilege to do it.”
Vandermark took his first steps in the business of making music on a different instrument.
“I started on trumpet when I was in third grade, and I was on that for a number of years,” he recalls. “I was a terrible trumpet player. I had a lot of embouchure problems,” he adds referring to his ability to adopt the right mouth shape to get a good sound on the trumpet. His transition to another instrument was only a matter of time. It came when he moved on to the tenor saxophone at age 16.
“That was partly because I loved playing music, and I was frustrated dealing with an instrument I couldn’t play, and partly because I was, and still am, a huge fan of Sonny Rollins.”
The latter is one of the great sax men of modern jazz, who is now 86 and recently retired.
“I thought the differences in embouchure for the tenor saxophone and the trumpet might be helpful for me, and that proved to be the case,” he says.
That youthful zest was buoyed by a supportive domestic backdrop.
“I grew up in a family that was very devoted to the arts and music. When I was very young, I used to go to jazz concerts with my father, and I really loved going,” he recounts.
Vandermark Sr. had a broad interest in jazz, which took mainstream sounds and less structured material, and that rubbed off on his son.
“I went to hundreds of jazz shows when I was young. My interest in music was jazz, and it became more avant-garde jazz as I got older because my father’s interests escalated in that way. He was really the motivator for me,” he continues.
Fired by that paternal inspiration and his own drive, he immersed himself even deeper in unfettered musical exploration when he relocated to Montreal for his undergraduate studies.
“I was surrounded by people who were listening to really amazing underground stuff like [Californian punk rock band] Black Flag. It was underground rock music and certainly not the Top 40 music which, in the early 1980s, was pretty uninteresting,” he notes.
After university, Vandermark returned to his hometown, Boston, but within a couple of years he moved on again – this time to Chicago, where he has lived since 1989.
“I knew some people from school who lived here, and I visited. Chicago is an extraordinary music city. For all kinds of music – not just jazz but for rock and everything,” he says.
The fact that the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which began furthering the lot of avant-garde jazz in the mid-1960s, was also located in Chicago had a bearing on Vandermark’s shift to the Midwest.
So the 20-something saxophonist made his home in the Windy City, enduring a rough first couple of years before finding like-minded musicians with whom he felt comfortable to further his craft. That took in slots at Anderson’s famed Velvet Lounge, where he happily mixed with the upper echelons of the avant-garde jazz community.
Over the years, Vandermark’s output has taken in free-flowing synergies with a whole host of bands, such as the NRG Ensemble, The Flying Luttenbachers, DKV Trio, Sonore and the Vandermark 5.
While one might think that when the going gets rough most of us gravitate toward the tried and tested, which we hope will give us some sense of security, Vandermark begs to differ. He believes that as the global political scene becomes ever rockier, more people are looking for new vistas to explore, including those of the musical variety.
“I think people are looking for new challenges to help them contend with what’s happening around them. I am encountering people over and over again who are looking for all kinds of freedom – creative freedom, political freedom. That openmindedness and drive toward equality, I have that reconfirmed all the time. I go to places where they have very complicated and destructive politics on a frequent basis. Look at my country. Look at what’s happening in the United States. But the people I encounter here in the US are very like-minded people. They’re people who are frustrated by the situation and are looking for better options. They connect with the kind of music I make because it is the voice of that kind of experience.”
If that’s the case, the Levontin 7 gigs should be packed to the rafters.
Ken Vandermark and his quartet perform tomorrow (Saturday) at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv. For tickets and more information: (03) 560-5084 and