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Interview with Ken Vandermark on the state of jazz

A great interview with Cheltenham/Birmingham regular Ken Vandermark, with a thoughtful take on many of the issues facing jazz to day. The interviewer (hat-tip!!) is Juan Rodriguez of the Montreal Gazette, who is curtain-raising for Vandermark’s appearance at the 10th Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival. The full interview is HERE. A few extracts:

On playing in many different groups:

“To get a sense of what I’m about musically you’d need to be aware of some of the variety of what I’m doing, because they’re all connected. There is a reason I’m doing the different groups, and that reasoning is consistent. That nature of the music will have a lot of variety.” […]

Most of the people I work with all work in a myriad of styles, or they try to find new hybrids to create something that’s personal. I think that process has always been there, but the difference in recent years is that now musicians tend to work in parallel with a multiplicity of ideas as opposed to having one group with whom they work for years.”

On the avant-garde:

“To me, the idea that the avant-garde stopped in 1970 is not really looking at what happened since then. I mean, everyone likes certain kinds of music and some people’s tastes lean one way or the other, but to me the issue isn’t really that jazz is dead but that it’s shifted into directions that some people might not prefer. To cite some examples, the music of Anthony Braxton or Peter Brötzmann or Evan Parker, there’s tons of incredible music that has happened over the last 40 years. That’s been kind of overlooked in the media, so people might not be as familiar with it as they could be. But the musicians have always subscribed to the idea of looking for new things to say. There won’t be another Charlie Parker or another John Coltrane, no one is ever going to sound like them again.”

On where jazz is going:

“If jazz is an art form, it’s going to constantly change and shift. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to improve, it just means it’s going to change. I mean, you’re not going to get better than Louis Armstrong, but there can be differences, such as people like Lester Young or John Coltrane who change the music. It seems to me that for a lot people covering jazz, for them it’s a style. The preponderance of focus in the U.S. on the work of the Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis is a sign that there’s a problem. Mr. Marsalis, for a variety of reasons, seems to want to codify what jazz is about, and I think that’s a huge mistake. As soon as you define an art form, it’s done, it’s over. There’s been a lot of creative, vital music since 1970. 50 years from now when people ask ‘Is so-and-so as significant as Ornette Coleman?’ in some cases they’re going to answer yes, because the music is going to keep changing. I think that right now we are in a golden age. You have amazing collaborations of people from each continent with an amazing mix of ideas. A great example is Berlin right now, because it’s a very international scene and you can really hear people coming from different countries and cities and bringing characteristics of those individual scenes and having those ideas rub against each other. That’s the kind of thing that happened in New York in the 40s, 50s and 60s, ideas coming from Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago. The force of a central location like that in terms of what it does to creative work is really important, and it’s happening now in Berlin. The best of is going to stick around.”

On the live experience versus recording:

“There’s no question that the music that’s had the most impact on me are the things I’ve heard live. I say this all the time, this music is about live performance, both for the musicians and the audience. A recording is an artifact of an event, and a concert is an actual event. The people who are in the same room together, performing and listening, are having a very unique experience because, at its best, no one knows what’s going to happen next. You can only have that experience live. If I had to say that there was something really missing in the music today, compared to earlier periods, is the opportunity for people to hear the same group night after night in a club. The days of playing in a city for five nights have either disappeared or are so rare that’s it’s not really an option for listeners. That experience of seeing musicians develop the music and the changes that happen from each performance is limited to the musicians who are on tour. I’ve played Montreal at least half a dozen times and what’s fantastic is that many people will come back and see how the group has changed. They have an insight into the music that for me is more valid than someone who just owns a bunch of my records.”

On the differences between North America and Europe:

“Basically I get paid 3-to-1 in concerts in Europe than those in the U.S. and Canada. The presenters will put money towards travel and accommodation and a per diem. Expenses normally don’t get covered in North America, so I’ve really had to cut back on performances here, because you need to be able to pay musicians for their work. But the audiences I play to in North America are very similar to those in Europe. It tends to be a mixed audience, with a lot of younger people, people between 20 and 50 who generally tend to be massive music fans, not specifically avant-garde jazz fans but who are interested in what’s new in music now. Those are the people I want to be playing to, whether they’re in Chicago or Europe or Montreal.”

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4 replies »

  1. Great interview with Ken, who is a great thinker about jazz as well as a great player. He's not really a Cheltenham regular; he's been once! But in my role as Artistic Director of Birmingham Jazz I have set up three tours for Ken in UK, with the Vandermark 5, the American & Norwegian group School Days and a tour in a trio with Mark Sanders and Barry Guy. I have booked the Vandermark 5 for Birmingham on Saturday 18th September in a double bill with the Norwegian Swedish group Atomic. Tony DE

  2. Nice to see Ken's opinions making it onto a jazz blog, but I disagree with a few things he says.. there may not be “another Charlie Parker or another John Coltrane” (what does that MEAN anyway? they're both dead), but they are both still very much present in today's new music – without Coltrane (and therefore without Parker, since Coltrane came out of him) you wouldn't have Evan Parker (who Ken mentions as one of the new voices) or Paul Dunmall, or Dave Liebman, Jan Garbarek or Steve Coleman, several of the most influential voices in very differing strands of jazz/improvised music. It also seems to represent a suspicion of the idea of a continuum that runs through and around their music – the idea that without Coleman Hawkins you wouldn't have Parker, and therefore Trane, then Wayne Shorter (who has influenced Evan Parker much more than is generally acknowledged) and so on, which of course doesn't even begin to spell out the whole picture (a fact lost on the jazz education establishment), but nevertheless highlights at least one piece of the puzzle in an attitude to improvising that is ongoing today, with or without media attention. His assertion that “no-one is ever going to sound like them again” is an overly simplistic one when ideas at the heart of their music inform some of the newest music today.
    Also, while I can quite understand that he has a problem with the Lincoln Centre crowd, the idea of shrinking down musics of the past into a style is one that informs some very interesting music too – John Zorn, the improv scene in Holland (Han Bennink, Toby Delius and others), LIMA, use styles as a way of creating areas in their music. That's a million miles from what Wynton's doing of course, but it goes to show that the concept isn't necessarily abhorrent when applied differently.
    Also his contention that recording is secondary to live performance – they are two different things. Many very interesting records that could not possibly have been made live were made in studios, whilst many gigs that were exciting at the time do not necessarily bear repeated listening.
    Anyway I should probably have taken it up with him instead of ranting on your blog
    Best wishes
    MH

  3. Oh, what I would have given to see the Vandermark 5/Atomic performance.

    I'm very much looking forward to at least hearing the show on Jazz on 3.

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