Creative Improvised Music – A Wakeup Call From Ken Vandermark

I attended a show recently that featured saxophonist Ken Vandermark, and it got me thinking.

I first became aware of Ken almost 20 years ago. At the time, I was mostly into very mainstream jazz – Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, etc. I was knew of, had respect for, but didn’t really listen much to, certain “free jazz” musicians that had strong ties to the tradition – Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman in particular. And at some point after moving to Colorado in 1988, I began subscribing to Cadence magazine. Cadence covers jazz, but also more generally “creative improvised music” – much of which exists outside the radar of the mainstream jazz media. And it seemed that every other CD they reviewed at that time featured Ken Vandermark.

I don’t know that it is possible to describe this music succinctly, because by its very nature, much of it defies convention of genre or idiom. It often involves improvisation that is free of typical chord structures and hence is often atonal. Some people find it hard to identify any sort of structure, but then, many find it hard to recognize structure in bebop.

I started listening to some of this music, including Ken’s, and was intrigued. For quite some time I worked incorporating some of these sounds and ideas into my own composition and playing, and I found it very musically rewarding. I even ended up recording a CD with trumpeter Hugh Ragin for the Creative Improvised Music Projects label, which is run by the same folks (Bob Rusch & company) that publish Cadence Magazine.

That was all while having a day job as a software engineer, treating music as a hobby. At some point I realized that playing music “as a hobby” was about as fulfilling as when someone you really like tells you that they like you too – “as a friend”. So I quit the day job and went into music full time. At some point after that, however, I had to accept that as personally fulfilling as this “creative improvised music” was, my career pretty much demanded I focus primarily on traditional forms. Between playing a steady gig for many years at El Chapultepec (where it was all about playing “standards”), going back to school to study composition, teaching jazz theory, and any number of other factors, my musical thinking has been much more focused on mainstream jazz again for the last decade or so. It’s not that I deliberately turned my back on “creative improvised music”, but I did not go out of my way to make room for it, either, and not surprisingly, it didn’t make room for me.

When Ken Vandermark came to town last week with Dutch musician Ab Baars, I of course attended, and really enjoyed the performance. It also served as a wakeup call – a reminder of something that had been missing from my musical expression for too long. I’m not sure how I’ll respond to that realization, but it was an eye-opener. I still have a lot of straightahead compositions I hope to record soon, and I still expect to be making my living playing mainstream jazz. But I need to keep in mind what it was I loved so much that it set me on this path in the first place.

Here are some shots from the concert featuring Ken along with saxophonist Ab Baars, bassist Wilbert De Joode, and drummer Martin van Duynhoven:

By the way, I was also surprised to see that Ken was about the same age as me, and had actually only just hit the scene when I became aware of him. For some reason, as much as I was seeing his name back then, I assumed he had been around a long time already.

A couple more shots: