'Genius grant' winner Ken Vandermark gets nod from Chicago Jazz Festival

Ken Vandermark

Ken Vandermark (March 24, 2013)

The most intriguing work at this year's Chicago Jazz Festival, running Thursday through Sunday, may come from the horn of MacArthur "genius grant" winner Ken Vandermark.

As this year's artist-in-residence, the hyperinventive Chicago reedist-bandleader-composer will appear in four different settings, each spotlighting a different facet of his free-ranging music.

But the very fact that Vandermark, an innovator who always has labored far outside the jazz mainstream, was chosen as artist-in-residence caught many people off guard, including Vandermark himself.

"I was extremely surprised," says Vandermark, with characteristic forthrightness. "I've been a part of the scene in Chicago for a long time, but definitely part of the more underground scene. And for (the festival) to acknowledge me in such a strong way was kind of a surprise and quite flattering — and surprising."

That's because Vandermark does not produce the sort of music that you hum on the way out of the concert. His is a complex, demanding and, at its best, deeply satisfying exploration of the outer reaches of jazz experimentation. Listeners who prefer rhythms you can tap your foot to, melodies that address the ear gently or chord changes of any kind generally will not find them in Vandermark's work. But open-eared adventurers willing to experience sound purely on its own terms, music untethered from 20th-century conventions and built on abstract color and texture, welcome Vandermark's ideas.

Not that his journey has been easy. In the early 1990s he played tirelessly in tiny Chicago clubs at the margins of the city's jazz scene. The 1999 MacArthur prize gave him new visibility, plus $265,000 over a five-year period, which enabled Vandermark to convene international ensembles for performance and touring (in recent years, the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation has upped its award to $500,000 for later recipients).

But once Vandermark spent the MacArthur money on his music, it was gone. Though he hastens to express his gratitude for what the MacArthur funds made possible, Vandermark eventually was right back to trying to find support for his decidedly noncommercial work.

So the opportunity to bring musicians from around the world to Chicago for his jazz festival residency represents a significant opportunity for Vandermark and for his Chicago devotees.

He has chosen to duet with veteran multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee (Friday ) because "he's one of the major inspirations in my artistic life, and my life in general," Vandermark says.

Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love stands as a Vandermark contemporary, and their duet performance (Saturday) is valuable to Vandermark because "I've played with Paal probably more than any other musician these last several years."

Vandermark's most eagerly anticipated performance will be with his large Resonance Ensemble (Saturday), featuring creative improvisers from Sweden, Poland, Ukraine and the U.S. But Vandermark and friends will have just a couple of days in which to rehearse before heading into the recording studio, then on to Saturday's performance.

Because of the time crunch, Vandermark hasn't been able to craft the kind of intricate scores he wrote years ago for his superb Territory Band.

"The music is different, just because it's getting harder and harder to get rehearsal time," Vandermark says. "The Territory Band was funded by the MacArthur prize. With Resonance, it's more practical reality. …

"The music has to be efficient, so I've come up with a way to write material that's modular, so it can get reorganized over and over again."

Finally, Vandermark will lead his Made to Break Quartet (Sunday), which he says veers furthest from free-jazz languages.

"It's really coming from a different place," says Vandermark, who never really stops searching for them.

Ken Vandermark plays with McPhee at 5 p.m. Friday at Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall, 430 S. Michigan Ave., seventh floor; 2 p.m. Saturday with Nilssen-Love at the Jazz and Heritage Stage; 6 p.m. Saturday with the Resonance Ensemble at the Petrillo Music Shell; and 2:20 p.m. Sunday with the Made to Break Quartet at the Jazz on Jackson Stage, in Grant Park, near Columbus Drive and Jackson Boulevard; free; 312-744-3316 or chicagojazzfestival.us.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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