Pass it Down: Ken Vandermark's Edition Redux
The passing of knowledge from one generation to the next is terribly important to the evolution and continuity of jazz. The history is full of stories of future standard bearers being shaped by formative interaction with their elders. Before the explosion of college-based jazz programs and the simultaneous shrinking of performance opportunities, most of that mentoring took place on bandstands and in the hours getting to those bandstands.
So it was heartening to watch 58-year old saxophonist and clarinetist Ken Vandermark lead a band of musicians half his age in concert at Hawks & Reed on April 20. The Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares event was part of an eight-city U.S. tour. The band has a European tour scheduled for the fall.
It’s hard to overestimate how valuable this kind of practical schooling is for emerging artists. The young musicians, Erez Dessel (keyboards), Beth McDonald (tuba) and Lily Finnegan (drums), are a few years out of college (undergraduate and graduate), and they absorbed Vandermark’s musical lessons a like dry paper towel. Vandermark remarked what fast learners they were, and how quickly they were able to inhabit his complicated compositions. At the same time, they were also soaking up soft skills: how to carry themselves, how to talk to sound engineers and interact with audience members, how to pack for the road.
Vandermark, who booked and managed the tour, also had to stay flexible and nimble. His original vision, called Edition 55, was a quintet with cello, bass, tuba and drums. Two months before liftoff, health and other unforeseen circumstances necessitated a reconfiguration into Edition Redux. Beth McDonald and Lily Finnegan were holdovers, while pianist Erez Dessel was a late addition. Vandermark had to rewrite parts and teach the newcomer his system for utilizing his compositions.
The music, which will be recorded and released on Vandermark’s Audiographic Records, had sections of dense, driving, unison playing juxtaposed with portions of open, meditative music. It had a suite-like sweep, and like all of Vandermark’s work, it was compelling and coherent and inspired by heroes of the composer. We heard pieces dedicated to the American-Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow and the French filmmaker Robert Bresson.
We were glad to provide Dessel with an acoustic piano, his first of the tour. Although he sounded very good on his Korg keyboard, the piano sounded grand, expansive. A recent New England Conservatory graduate, he was music director of the Savanah (GA) Music Festival Jazz Academy, where he learned about the work of Georgia-born saxophonist Marion Brown. During show-and-tell at the post-concert dinner, we showed him Brown’s hard to find book, “Recollections”, and an original painting he did while living in western Massachusetts. Dessel is currently the community engagement coordinator for the Chicago Philharmonic.
McDonald had a big fat satisfying tone on tuba that was augmented by a bunch of pedals and effects. She gave the music its bottom while also providing drones, rumblings and a bit of mystery. Like the rest of the band, she studied in Boston (NEC) and lives in Chicago. Like the rest of her bandmates, she was curious and gracious in equal measure.
Finnegan got her masters degree from Berklee School of Music, where she was part of the Global Jazz Institute and the Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice. Her career has been greatly advanced by Terri Lynn Carrington and Kris Davis, who put her to work and put her in touch with folks who can advance a career. She is now back in her hometown of Chicago, where she is the record store manager of Catalytic Sound, an experimental music cooperative that Vandermark is involved in.
Ken Vandermark, an important figure on Chicago’s jazz scene since 1990, learned from elders too, of course. These include Hal Russell, the idiosyncratic, multi-instrumentalist, tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, the owner/operator of Chicago’s jazz finishing school, the Velvet Lounge, and German reed man Peter Brötzmann, a leading figure in the European avant-garde. His father, jazz writer Stu Vandermark, also had an early impact. He and Ken’s mom, Sue, were at the Greenfield show, as well as the concert the night before at Rob Vandermark’s Seven Cycles bicycle factory in Watertown, MA.
So it goes, from generation to generation. Ken Vandermark is a humble guy with high standards and an expansive understanding of music; he’s providing a perfect conduit of jazz knowledge. Lending expertise and encouraging youth is the ultimate expression of hope, and insures a future steeped in past accomplishments.