Tag Archives: Nate Wooley

Ken Vandermark’s Indefatigable Drive and Avant-Garde Vision

Ken Vandermark

Photo by Andy Moor.

For more than two decades, the Chicago reedist, bandleader, and composer Ken Vandermark has served as something of a DIY icon, a fiercely independent musician pursuing improvisation with the same rigor and ferocity with which he conducts his own business. Chicago, of course, has a rich tradition of creative musicians taking charge of their affairs. In 1965, a group of iconoclastic, forward-looking musicians, including Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, and Roscoe Mitchell joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), taking charge of concert production and programming in order to have full, uncompromised control of their art. Vandermark, a Boston native who moved to Chicago in 1989, adapted many of those concepts for his own work in the early ‘90s, inspired as much by the punk ethos as the AACM’s model. The self-sufficient system he forged has not only fueled his own successes, but was crucial in reinvigorating avant-garde music in Chicago and abroad.

While free jazz and free improvisation have remained his bedrock concerns, his skill as a composer—both for small ensembles and large groups—has steadily grown in sophistication and effectiveness. Over the years, he’s gotten adept at harnessing a wide range of musical interests within his various projects—funk, noise, 20th Century classical music, reggae, African music, and more. For years, Vandermark would track down venues to present his own music, as well as other similarly inclined musicians, establishing residencies to develop new groups in front of youthful audiences.

He later launched an influential weekly jazz and improvised music series with the writer John Corbett at the legendary Chicago rock club Empty Bottle, which ambitiously presented the leading figures of the discipline from all around the world. “During that period, what I learned from seeing the shows and meeting the musicians was priceless, and in many cases led to future collaborations,” says Vandermark. Indeed, some of his earliest encounters with the likes of steady musical partners like Joe McPhee, Mats Gustafsson, and Peter Brötzmann were initiated through performances there. “Musicians from other cities and countries would reciprocate and help with gigs where they were based. I saw that organizing concerts was essential to building the music, for everyone, including me.”

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Nate Wooley, Sonic Explorer

Nate Wooley
Nate Wooley. Photo by Ziga Koritnik.

Trumpeter Nate Wooley admits there are moments when his far-flung musical activities make him feel a bit scattered. While he’s at the center of an expanding circle of daring musicians, including saxophonist Steve Lehman and percussionist Tyshawn Sorey, who thrive upon moving freely and rigorously through disparate traditions, Wooley’s voracious appetite for exploration stands apart. Although he grew up playing straight-ahead jazz in Portland, Oregon, since moving to New York in 2001, he’s fearlessly opened up his practice to include contemporary classical, experimental, and underground rock.

“Earlier this year I did a tour with Mats Gustafsson’s Fire Orchestra, came back for two days, and then played Eliane Radigue, and that was really tough,” Wooley says of the Swedish free jazz ensemble and austere French composer. “To go from smoke machines, multi-colored lights, and a screaming big band, to being a guy in a room playing as soft as possible in two days was tricky.” Those aren’t the only stylistic poles reflected in Wooley’s work these days; by remaining true to his aesthetic, leapfrogging between various contexts, Wooley has emerged as one of America’s most exciting and inveterate sonic explorers.

He wouldn’t have it any other way. “In some way I get this fantasy, in my darkest periods, where I’m like, ‘Well, maybe it would be easier if I just made these kinds of records and people would be able to attach a sound to my name and maybe I could play some more gigs or get a little more notoriety,” he says. “But then I can step back and go, ‘Yeah, you’d be miserable. So now you get to play 150 days a year but it’s 150 days of that one thing. And I’m not built to do that. And luckily, by sticking to my guns, I feel like my brand or the way people view me is through the lens of, ‘He does different stuff all the time.’”

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