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Empty Bottle, Chicago, September 22–26, 2004; photo courtesy Seth Tisue
September 22, 1964 |
Warwick, Rhode Island
A fixture on the Chicago-area music scene since the 1990s, Vandermark has earned wide critical praise for his playing and his multilayered compositions, which typically balance intricate orchestration with passionate improvisation. He has led or been a member of many groups, has collaborated with many other musicians, and was awarded a 1999 MacArthur Fellowship. He plays tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet; in about 2000, added baritone saxophone to his arsenal, and often favors the instrument, particularly in larger ensembles.
Boston and Montreal 
Vandermark grew up in Massachusetts, graduating from Natick High School. His father, Stu, is a noted jazz critic. Vandermark performed and led groups while in high school and at McGill University in Montreal from which he graduated in 1986. He is mostly self-taught as a musician, but studied intermittently with George Garzone in the early 1980s.
Returning to the Boston area after graduation, he led or co-led groups (including Lombard Street and Mr. Furious) in Boston. Compositions/arrangements for the Boston-based groups set the groundwork for and predicted approaches to recordings and live performances developed in Chicago. Although a trio, Lombard Street incorporated “suite forms” characteristic of later arrangements for groups of both substantial and limited instrumentation. Vandermark’s “dedication pieces” are found first in Lombard Street performances, as in the case of “The Politics of Sound,” which was dedicated to the musicians in Boston-based ensembles Shock Exchange, The Fringe, and the Joe Morris Trio. Works performed by Mr. Furious, such as “Cold Coffee,” include some of the most convincing early examples of Vandermark’s signature free-ranging charts. Developed further in Barrage Double Trio (e.g., “Agamemnon Sleeps”) this simultaneously linear and episodic perspective on arrangement broadly has been the overarching architecture in most of his works for large-ensembles since that time.
Vandermark has lived in Chicago since autumn 1989. Since then, he has performed or recorded with many musicians (including Hal Russell, Paal Nilssen-Love, Hamid Drake, Fred Anderson, David Stackenäs, Paul Lytton, Joe Morris, Ab Baars, The Ex, Marcin Oles, Axel Doerner, Mats Gustafsson, Bartlomiej Oles, Wolter Wierbos, Joe McPhee, Zu, Peter Brötzmann, Fredrik Ljungkvist, Paul Lovens, Lasse Marhaug, Yakuza, Kevin Drumm, and members of Superchunk). He first gained widespread attention while with the NRG Ensemble from 1992 to 1996. He was once a member of Witches and Devils and the Flying Luttenbachers and has led or co-led several groups, including DKV Trio, Free Fall, Territory Band, CINC, Sonore, the Vandermark 5, the Free Music Ensemble, School Days, the Sound in Action Trio, Steam and Powerhouse Sound.
The Joe Harriott Project, a brief celebration of Harriott in 1998 in the Chicago area, consisted of Ken Vandermark (reeds), Jeb Bishop (trombone), Kent Kessler (bass), and Tim Mulvenna (drums). The band played the music of Joe Harriott, transcribed and arranged by Vandermark.
In 2002 Vandermark recorded Furniture Music, his first released performances as an unaccompanied soloist.
After several years of Vandermark 5 performances of his arrangements of works by Sonny Rollins, Joe McPhee, Cecil Taylor, and others, Vandermark in 2005 announced, "Though I have learned a great deal by rearranging some of my favorite composers' work for the Vandermark 5, it's time to leave that process behind and focus more completely on my own ideas."
Vandermark is the subject of Musician (2007), one of a series of Daniel Kraus video documentaries on contemporary occupations.
Vandermark won the Cadence magazine poll in 1998 for best artist and best recording. He was a finalist for the 1998 Herb Alpert Fellowship.
In 1999 Vandermark was awarded a $265,000 MacArthur Fellowship, a prize then awarded on an age-based scale to creative leaders and meant to enable them to pursue their creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations. The MacArthur fellowship was somewhat controversial, due to Vandermark's relative youth and obscurity: he was 35 and known mostly in Chicago, while other jazz performers awarded the Fellowship were older and better-known (e.g., Cecil Taylor, George Russell).
Groups and collaborations 
In the mid-1990s, Vandermark was known, in part, for his many collaborations with other musicians. Some groups were ad hoc settings, while others were more stable. He worked not only in jazz, but free improvisation, noise, rock and roll of various stripes, and other settings. Due in part to wanting to focus more on his own compositions, Vandermark decided in about 2000 to limit his collaborations.
Vandermark's notable groups are outlined below:
DKV Trio 
Spaceways Inc. 
Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake, and bassist Nate McBride. Originally devoted to interpretations of the music of Sun Ra and the P-Funk/George Clinton family, Spaceways Inc. later branched into versions of classic reggae songs as well as Vandermark originals.
The Vandermark 5 
Perhaps Vandermark’s main compositional vehicle, the Vandermark 5 released their first album in 1996.
Initial personnel were Vandermark, Mars Williams (saxophone), Jeb Bishop (trombone and electric guitar, though the later was gradually phased out), Kessler (bass) and Tim Mulvenna (drums). Williams left and was replaced by saxophonist Dave Rempis; while Tim Daisy took over Mulvenna's seat at the drums. Bishop left the group in 2005, and was replacement was cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm.
Territory Band 
After being awarded the MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, Vandermark used some of the financial windfall to assemble the Territory Band, a big band composed of musicians from North America and Europe. Vandermark describes Territory Band as “an intersection of my two primary musical interests, American Jazz and European Improvised Music.” Personnel have varied, but have always included Vandermark, Rempis and Fredrik Lunkgkvist on reeds; Axel Dorner on trumpet and Per-Ake Holmlander on tuba; Jim Baker on piano; Kessler on bass and Lonberg-Holm on cello; and Paal Nilssen-Love and Paul Lytton on drums (it should be mentioned that Lytton is an important figure in the development of European free improvisation). Territory Band also incorporates elements of noise and electroacoustic improvisation via the contributions of Kevin Drumm, who departed in about 2005 and was replaced by Lasse Marhaug.
RARA AVIS 
In June 2012, Ken Vandermark recorded Mutations / Multicellulars Mutations, the first album by a newly created ensemble called RARA AVIS, featuring Stefano Ferrian (soprano/tenor saxophone), Stefano Quatrana (piano), Luca Pissavini (double bass) and SEC_ (tape recorder, instant sound treatment). The ensemble premiered on April 26, 2013 at Novara Jazz Winter.
- see Vandermark’s notes for the 2007 album, Collide, by Territory Band 6, with Fred Anderson.