MacArthur Genius Grant-winning musician Ken Vandermark brings a trio to town for an improvisational performance

By March 10, 2020 No Comments
Ken Vandermark, right

Ken Vandermark, right

By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer


Ken Vandermark estimates that he spends about six months a year performing and traveling. 

The saxophonist/clarinetist still calls Chicago his home, but many of his excursions take place in Europe, where his blend of composition and improvisation — rooted to, but not fully bound to, jazz — has a receptive audience. Several of the collaborators involved in his numerous projects reside across the ocean anyway.

Spending that amount of time on the road can tax any musician, especially a 55-year old whose travel itinerary resembles a DIY indie rocker more than a veteran jazz player. But you won’t hear Vandermark complain. “I have to be honest, I’m very fortunate,” he says by phone from Chicago. “I love what I do. The people I get to work with are incredible and filled with ideas. It can get kind of exhausting but every job has its price. Lack of sleep is the price I pay for getting to do what I do. It’s definitely a fair tradeoff.”

Vandermark — who taught himself tenor and baritone saxophone as well as B-flat and bass clarinets — returns to Pittsburgh with two collaborators that have factored heavily into his approach to music. Trumpeter Nate Wooley is a master of extended technique on his horn. He and Vandermark have been collaborating for at least five years. Drummer Paul Lytton was part of the free improvisation scene in England that sprouted up during the musical revolutions of the 1960s. 

In talking about Lytton, Vandermark recalls a conversation with the drummer about developing an individual voice on their instruments. During the ’60s, Lytton and his English bandmates realized they could never be the John Coltrane Quartet so they embarked on their own path. “He looked at me and said, ‘What are you going to do,’” Vandermark says. “He was throwing down the gauntlet. That’s what I’ve been striving for – finding my own thing and being as rigorous as John Coltrane was about his work, or as Paul has been about his work.”

He adds that Wooley has been one of the most significant collaborators in Vandermark’s career. They’ve worked as a duo (appearing at the Warhol Museum in 2015) and the trumpeter also plays in Vandermark’s large ensemble and in a collaborative quartet. “He’s a really deep thinker about music and creative philosophical ideas as well,” Vandermark says.

The saxophonist’s career was already in high gear when he received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, which is often known as the “Genius Grant.” Being a relatively young recipient and someone who was still making a name for himself, the award came as a surprise to Vandermark, who received $500,000 paid over a five-year period. He used it to build on his already prolific discography, staging two US tours with the Peter Brötzmann Tentet, and creating his own Territory Band, a group made of European and American players. 

Two decades later, he says he’s still reaping benefits from the award. “The MacArthur kind of gave me the economic foundation to try a bunch of things that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise,” he says. “What I learned in that period still impacts what I’m doing now. A lot of relationships developed in that period, [which] completely inform what I’m doing now.”

Although Vandermark and Wooley have blended compositions with free improvisation in their duo shows, the current tour with Lytton will be completely improvised each night. “They kind of wipe the slate clean every night and start, in a way, from zero,” Vandermark says. “It’s very inspiring to be around. It’s extremely hard to do that. They’ve very committed to the idea of, let’s say, true improvisation, which [is based on] as much surprise as possible, as much risk as possible.”

KEN VANDERMARK/NATE WOOLEY TRIO. 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 16. Spirit Hall, 242 51st Street, Lawrenceville. $20-$25.

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