Ken Vandermark on Gratitude, Inspiration, and Jazz Freedom

By Anita Overcash

Saxophonist Ken Vandermark’s skills as a composer have shaped the avant garde music scene in Chicago and beyond. His musical collaborations often have him globe-trotting, and he combines his love for free jazz and improvisation with other genres such as electronic, rock, funk, reggae, and Afrobeat. By doing so he shapes each ensemble with which he performs in a unique way, as do his musical counterparts, who also come from a variety of backgrounds with participation in other multifaceted projects. He refers to his diverse music collection as a research library.

"I want to create music that takes all those inspirations and works with them. A big part of that is connected to rhythm, and there's flexibility in jazz in terms of incorporating different types of rhythm," says Vandermark, best known for his groundbreaking compositions in his quintet The Vandermark 5.

Vandermark, who performs with trumpet master Nate Wooley at New Frequencies at McColl Center on Friday, May 12, is a man who values his musical freedom and shows gratitude where it’s deserved.

For more than a decade Vandermark has made it a point to thank through song dedications the folks who have influenced and/or inspired him. After forming a duo collaboration with Wooley in 2013, he continued exhibiting gratitude on albums – 2014’s East by Northwest and 2015’s All Directions Home – that the pair released.

“I tend to dedicate my compositions to different people – musicians, artists, writers filmmakers, photographers – that have inspired me,” says Vandermark. “The material in general isn’t trying replicate the work of the person cited, it’s more like a thank-you letter to them to acknowledge the impact they’ve had on me.”

Part of that impact has included many occasions where he fell down a rabbit hole of sorts after learning about artists’ personal muses. He started listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s work because of fellow saxophonist Anthony Braxton’s recommendation. Vandermark hopes that the recognition of notable figures leads his fans to new discoveries, too.

Ken Vandermark and Nate Wooley (Courtesy of the artist)

Meanwhile, on the performance front, Vandermark provides his listeners with new experiences via his improvisational gifts. For the upcoming show here at New Frequencies at McColl Center, he and Wooley will perform solo sets before a third set as a duo. The two are currently writing new material on the road, though most of it will come together spontaneously and through extended playing.

“Instead of a piece being, let’s say, five minutes long, we’re going to work towards twenty minutes to see what happens to the music and how it pushes us,” says Vandermark.

Initially, when Vandermark and Wooley began talks to form a group, they wanted it to include themselves alongside a double trio of two drummers and two bassists. When that didn’t come to fruition, the two decided to take their chances and just play music together.

“Strangely, there really aren’t very many examples of that particular format of trumpet and reeds playing together as a duo. The only one we could find was John Carter on clarinet and Bobby Bradford on trumpet.” Vandermark gives a shout out to them both in “Deconstructed Folks (for John Carter and Bobby Bradford).”

At first, Vandermark and Wooley were concerned that their ensemble might have limitations based on there being so few of its kind. “Then, we started rehearsing and got to thinking ‘Why aren’t people doing this?’ It’s the perfect format,” says Vandermark, who goes on to explain that the duo has more freedom than limitations, especially when it comes to sound and rhythm.

“There are so many loud and quiet elements to explore. It’s like a tiny orchestra,” he says. “It’s really free. I am surprised more people haven’t worked with it because you can do anything with it. It’s great and very liberating.”

Anita Overcash is a writer and editor based in Charlotte.