Ken Vandermark doesn't care whether you think he plays jazz or not. On the latest release by The Vandermark 5, you're as likely to find him blowing monstrous Albert Ayler-esque sax lines, or diving into a heady stew of percussion clatter, string scrapes and high-pitched squeaks, as swinging like Monk or post-bopping like Miles. Then he'll turn on a dime a few minutes later into something completely different -- even something funky.
Vandermark has received a MacArthur genius grant for utter dedication to his craft. He has spent over 15 years working with The Vandermark 5, the greatest forward-thinking jazz group in America today, and more than a dozen others, including NRG Ensemble, Caffeine and Steel Wool Trio. But the Chicago-based baritone saxophonist isn't any closer to acceptance in the world of mainstream jazz.
"They find what I'm doing is unconventional because it disrupts the way they want to hear music," he says. "We put the music where it's going to be taking chances and risks, where we're asking something of ourselves and the listeners -- not just playing stuff they've already heard. There's no point in doing it if we're just going to regurgitate the past."
Despite his stance as a jazzman of the future, Vandermark leans liberally on historical perspectives. For a long period in the '90s, he re-examined the work of jazz composers that he considered overlooked, such as Carla Bley, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Joe McPhee. In essence, he was creating a book of standards for the avant-garde where none had existed.
"I did that because there'd been a shift in the '60s where the people that wrote the compositions started to be the only ones who played them," he says. "Whereas when Monk was alive, a lot of people did his pieces. But I decided to take a break from that because a lot of fans and writers used those sources to determine what I was doing with my original music, which was problematic."
Vandermark's ethos is also informed by the self-determination of the early years of black AACM experimental jazzers such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the freedom of the European improv scene, the cross-scene pollination of Chicago post-rockers such as Tortoise, and the DIY punk aesthetic of The Ex and Fugazi.
For the group's new Atavistic Records release, A Discontinuous Line, all of the tracks are dedicated to various artists Vandermark admires: non-musical influences including architect Santiago Calatrava, pre-Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico and filmmaker Sergio Leone. Vandermark's background in film studies led him to compose "Morricone," which actually sounds better suited to an experimental Stan Brakhage film than a spaghetti Western. "The film stuff has had more impact on another band I recently formed, called the Frame Quartet," he says. "But all the musicians I know are passionately interested in other art forms, and I've made it a habit to acknowledge people who've inspired my own creative work."
The CD's title emerged from the sense of progression in the band's character following its third core-lineup shift. Added to the fray a year and a half ago was cellist and Chicago improv-scene stalwart Fred Lonberg-Holm. "Having Fred join opened up possibilities for us: the combination of double strings [with bassist Kent Kessler, and] his ability to do a wide range of things in sound and texture," says Vandermark. "I also was able to use electronics, which I'd been interested in for years, and incorporate more new chamber music, noise and rock ideas. The sound of the band is fresh and inspiring to compose for, and the music really feels alive for me."
Despite not having the subsidized status that many jazz and free-improv musicians enjoy in Europe, Vandermark seems gratified that a group like The Vandermark 5 can be long-running and self-supporting, able to perform weekly stints in Chicago and venture out for a dozen-plus tour dates in the States. He's patient to a fault, realizing it could be a long time before his work attracts any significant mainstream attention.
"We go where we can, and bring the music to the people who are willing to risk putting the concerts on," he says. "We're more interested in playing to people who are music fans, and the challenges we're asking the audience to face are worthwhile."
The Vandermark 5. 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 17 (doors at 7:30 p.m.). The Andy Warhol Museum, 117 Sandusky St., North Side. $12. 412-237-8300 or www.warhol.org