Eyebrows were raised in the jazz world when it was announced that the relatively obscure and young Ken Vandermark was to receive a 1999 MacArthur Genius grant. Previous MacArthur recipients among jazz musicians include Cecil Taylor and Anthony Braxton — near-legendary figures who, over the course of long careers, created substantial bodies of work that have (to some degree) stood the test of time. Vandermark, just 35 at the time, was little-known outside of Chicago, but became renowned all over the globe. His tenor sax and bass clarinet work is strong and expressive; his technique on his horns is as sure as can be, and his improvising and compositional styles are as intellectually engaging as they are original.
Vandermark began playing trumpet in fourth grade and then switched to tenor sax as a junior in high school. He attended McGill University from 1982 to 1986. In 1986, he moved to Boston, where he led a trio called Lombard Street and studied bass clarinet. In 1989, he moved from Boston to Chicago, where he first attracted notice as a member of Hal Russell 's NRG Ensemble. His activities increased: he began leading several ensembles and became a mover and shaker, promoting and booking events with influential jazz critic John Corbett. His presence became a constant on the Chicago arts scene, and he became associated with a wide variety of bands (many of which he leads), including the DKV Trio, Witches & Devils, the Joe Harriot Project, Steam, Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet, Spaceways Incorporate, the Vandermark 5 — the latter released more than ten albums, including 2001's Acoustic Machine, 2005's Color of Memory, and 2006's Free Jazz Classics, Vols. 3 & 4. A Discontinuous Line also appeared in 2006 from Atavistic.
Vandermark's projects are dizzying in their diversity and approach, their experimentation and vision. He has collaborated with dancers, poets, painters, and more. His presence on the European scene has, in the 21st century, included stints with Paal Nilssen-Love (with whom he formed the Territory Band after winning the MacArthur — they released five albums between 2004 and 2007. In 2009, Vandermark released the ten-disc box Resonance, in association with the Not Two label, documenting his big band of the same name's residency at Alchemia, in Krakow, Poland. The same year he issued recordings with Vandermark Five, Sonore, a pair of live albums with Lean Left, and two duo sets with Tim Daisy. A year later, he participated in El Infierno Musical, a tribute to Alejandra Pizarnik assembled by Christof Kurzmann. The album was released with an accompanying video of the performance. Besides Vandermark and its conceptualist, the band also included Martin Brandlmayr, Clayton Thomas, and Eva Reiter.
His flurry of activity only increased. Over the next five years, Vandermark revived the DKV Trio, worked with Brötzmann's large group, the Ex & Brass Unbound, formed the Margots (a jazz quintet with vocalist Adrienne Pierluissi, cello, and viola). He recorded Impressions of Po Music as Ken Vandermark’s Topology Nonet featuring Joe McPhee, as well as new material with his band Fire Music, three dates in Lisbon with Made to Break, and Verses, a duo album with Mats Gustafsson. The following year, Vandermark's highlights included the six-disc box Nine Ways to Reach the Bridge, a collection of duos with Kurzmann, Agustín Fernández, Joe Morris, and McPhee, and trios with John Tilbury, Eddie Prevost, Nate Wooley, and Paul Lytton. Not Two issued Occasional Poems, his 2015 duo set with bassist Barry Guy, as one of a half-dozen albums. Some of the others included music from the Chicago Reed Quartet with Nick Mazzarella, Dave Rempis, and Mars Williams. Six more releases followed in 2016, including the box set Momentum 1: Stone, which featured more duos, trios, and quartets. There was a pair of duo recordings as well: Close Up (For Abbas Kiarostami) with Lasse Marhaug and Splinters with Terrie Hessels. In early 2017, Vandermark debuted a self-titled offering (on Audiographic) from Shelter, a new quartet with Wooley, drummer Steve Heather, and bassist and guitarist Jasper Stadhouders. ~ Chris Kelsey