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Taking Little for Granted

Avant-garde saxophonist Ken Vandermark may reach the next level with a MacArthur fellowship.

May 14, 2000|LLOYD SACHS | Lloyd Sachs is the jazz critic for the Chicago Sun-Times

CHICAGO — When the MacArthur Foundation tracked down Ken Vandermark by phone last June to inform him he had won one of its "genius grants," the Chicago avant-gardist was in no mood to talk. Midway through an East Coast tour, he and his Vandermark 5 had just driven for hours through torrential rain to a show in Chapel Hill, N.C. His nerves shot, he was busy unloading equipment--and perhaps dreading another night sleeping on someone's floor, a common arrangement for the band's self-financed jaunts.

Warily accepting the call, he heard an officious female voice ask him whether he was alone. When he said yes, he was informed of his no-strings-attached award of $265,000--and instructed not to share the news with anyone. Usually, Vandermark plays the tenor saxophone with a feverish, full-throated intensity. That night, he performed in a daze.

"A third of me was there, a third of me was tired, and a third was thinking this can't be," Vandermark said recently, sitting in his cluttered walk-up across from an elevated train line on the city's North Side. The money, part of which he has invested for the future, hasn't visibly changed his life beyond a batch of new bookcases, which are filled with CDs. But it has given him the wherewithal to record and tour with large groups he couldn't otherwise float, pay his bandmates closer to what he thinks they deserve--and, you can be sure, improve their travel accommodations.

People outside Chicago were surprised and, in some cases, put out by the idea of a 34-year-old unknown, whose hard-working, self-deflecting ways don't attract a lot of attention, joining Max Roach, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor as a MacArthur fellow in jazz.

But for those who know his prolific efforts, the choice made sense. Chicago has long been a haven for free jazz, an improvisatory style that avoids conventional chord progressions and embraces atonality, frequently to screeching effect (cosmic visionary Sun Ra pioneered the genre here in the '50s). Vandermark has played a major role in boosting the city's avant-garde activity to a level it hasn't attained since the heyday of the venerable South Side collective the Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which recently celebrated its 35th anniversary.

Vandermark, who expresses his more mellifluous side on clarinets, has made the most of opportunities to perform two and three times a week in local clubs--an unheard-of situation in most cities, especially New York. He has led more than a dozen bands and documented most of them on record. In 1999, he released seven CDs on independent labels, including one by the Vandermark 5, a rock-friendly unit powered by electric guitar and thrusting horns, and two by his other working band, the propulsive DKV Trio.

His most thrilling 1999 album was by one of his special project bands, the Sound in Action Trio, an unusual unit featuring two complementary drummers that specializes in songs by Coleman and "energy music" avatar Albert Ayler. Another strong effort, by his Joe Harriott Project, features compositions by a forgotten saxophonist of the '60s who broke away from conventional restraints in London at the same time Coleman was introducing his "new thing" in New York.

"Ken is constantly looking to find new sides of his talent," said saxophonist Mars Williams, leader of the popular acid-jazz band Liquid Soul, who has teamed with Vandermark in many groups. "There is no one who is more open-minded to different styles of music. His ability to fit into them and fuse them together is pretty amazing."

But Vandermark's contribution to the rising Chicago underground goes beyond his music. With John Corbett, a critic, record producer and experimental guitarist, he founded and programs a Wednesday night music series at the Empty Bottle, a scruffy bar on the Near West Side. Now in its fourth year, the series has appealed to younger listeners seeking alternatives to the alternative rock presented there the rest of the week.


In addition to featuring a communal crop of local players ranging from the chamber-cool Chicago Underground Orchestra to the earthy 71-year-old tenor hero Fred Anderson, the Bottle has hosted a widening circle of European legends, including British saxophonist Evan Parker, German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and Dutch drummer Han Bennink. The club's rising profile is reflected in the deal it recently struck with England's BBC Radio 3 to air delayed broadcasts of several shows a year and French MTV's plans to document the fourth Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music that concludes Monday.

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