In 1989, after studying film and music at McGill University in Montreal, Boston native Ken Vandermark moved to Chicago, impressed by the unusually large number of venues in the city where improvising musicians such as himself could perform. It wasn’t long before Vandermark, who plays multiple saxophones and clarinets, was creating a buzz with the electro-acoustic Vandermark Quartet, an assault unit that upended standard notions of jazz-rock fusion.
Since then, the 47-year-old artist has relentlessly – some would say obsessively – tested himself in every conceivable setting. He has played unaccompanied, in duos and combos and large ensembles. He has led or co-led longstanding working bands including the Vandermark 5 and DKV Trio. He has teamed up with most of the greatest free jazz players in Europe, including German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, and such state-of-the-art New Yorkers as Jason Moran, artistic adviser for jazz at Lincoln Center. He has conceived a wide range of thematic projects and collaborated with visual artists. And he has documented virtually all of his music on a raft of albums. We’ll leave it to the Guinness Book of World Records to say exactly how many.
In 1999, Vandermark won a coveted MacArthur Foundation fellowship, based on his “creativity, originality, and potential to make important contributions in the future.” For several years, he co-curated an annual festival of improvised music and a weekly concert series at the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village. As documented in the 2007 film, Musician, which reveals the daily load of mundane matters he has to take care of to stay afloat in a culture that marginalizes artists like him, no one works harder for his art. In refusing to let jazz’s declining commercial fortunes dictate to him, he has been an important role model for a generation of self-defining Chicago artists including Jason Adasiewicz, Josh Berman and Jason Stein.
As this year’s Artist in Residence, Vandermark will perform improvised sets in two duos – opposite saxophonist and pocket trumpeter Joe McPhee Friday at 5 PM in Roosevelt University’s Ganz Hall and opposite drummer Paal Nilssen-Love Saturday at 2 PM at the Jazz & Heritage Stage. He’ll perform material written especailly for the festival with his international Resonance Ensemble Saturday at 7 PM at the Petrillo Music Shell and introduce local audiences to his Made to Break Quartet Sunday at 2:20 PM on the Jazz at Jackson stage. Four bands may give the most complete picture of Vandermark’s achievement, but with a player of his intensity, it may be best to take things in managable chunks.