Sax and the city

Jazz - Richard Cook on a young musician making his mark in Chicago

Too late - you've missed him. Ken Vandermark, the leading light of the new jazz from Chicago, was here for a few dates in November, culminating in an appearance at the London Jazz Festival with his group Schooldays. The brush-topped saxophonist might not have the pulling power of a media phenom such as Jamie Cullum, but he is quietly - or, rather, extremely noisily - making a lot of provocative waves in the way jazz is moving onwards.

The odd thing about Vandermark is that he's entirely in love with the jazz tradition at the same time as looking for ways to pull it apart and drive away from it fast. Schooldays, for instance - just one out of a bagful of Vandermark groups - could almost have walked straight off a West Coast jazz stage of nearly 50 years ago. Its curious instrumentation - sax, trombone, vibes, bass and drums - is as much used for texture and structural incident as it is a springboard for a leap into the existential improviser's happy hunting ground. The London concert had its inevitable share of pile-driving solos by all hands (although Kjell Nordeson's vibes offered an other-worldly coolness to counteract the expected heat from sax and trombone). But often it was most compelling when most steadied by and absorbed in the meat of the leader's themes.

Vandermark is a thirtysomething Bostonian who took up the saxophone when at college in Montreal, before resettling in Chicago in 1989. Almost ever since, he has been a galvanic force on the local scene, which had perhaps grown a little tired and out of sorts after the reputation it had enjoyed in the 1960s and 1970s as second only to New York as a seedbed for jazz progress. Long-term residencies at such venues as The Empty Bottle allowed him to work with an almost bewildering variety of bands, such as DKV, Steelwool Trio, Caffeine, Barrage Double Trio, Steam and The Crown Royals. But in recent times he has focused primarily on his major band, The Vandermark 5, as well as Schooldays and various evolving relationships with a select gang of players in both Europe and America. In 1999, he was given the MacArthur Foundation's lucrative "genius" award, whereupon the Grove Dictionary of Jazz sniffily commented that "on the strength of his recordings it is unclear why".

Actually, it's pretty clear to me. Vandermark's importance is that he is one of the few significant leaders who take on the usual gang-bang of influences from other music without watering down what is a profoundly well-informed and unswerving commitment to jazz principles. It's inconceivable that Vandermark could be caught guesting on superstar albums, even if Diana Krall asked him to do a solo on her next record, and hard to imagine him unbuttoning himself enough to indulge in the kind of crossover projects that even many supposedly serious jazz players seem ready to embrace at the drop of a major label's session fee. It's true that one of the discs by his Spaceways Inc trio did cover some tunes by the P-funk maestro George Clinton, but that was no more a sell-out than was Ornette Coleman doing "Embraceable You". The saxophonist's music is hard, charged and uneasy listening, even if he does often come up with exhilaratingly affecting melodies. That's part of Vandermark's ongoing paradox: he likes chamber-music vocabularies, will pick up the charming B-flat clarinet as often as the tenor or baritone sax, and dislikes playing with any kind of amplification system. Then he can blow the roof off as the unblinking eye at the centre of some ferocious free-for-all.

Luckily, while he's an infrequent visitor here, the music has already been widely set down on record. A few discs I might recommend: Burn the Incline (Atavistic, 1999) and Acoustic Machine (Atavistic, 2001), both by The Vandermark 5, are superb examples of how a regular band can create its own repertorial feel without sacrificing energy and freshness; Hoofbeats of the Snorting Swine (Eighth Day Music, 1996) is a thunderous two-man dialogue between Vandermark and fellow saxophonist Mars Williams, played out with peerless gusto; Design in Time (Delmark, 1999) finds the saxman trying on different hats as he works from jump-band R'n'B to a New Orleans-like sound on one tune; Double or Nothing (OkkaDisk, 2002) matches two Vandermark associations, the AALY Trio and the DKV Trio, in a meeting that ends up part frenzy and part rumination; and Crossing Division (OkkaDisk) is a vivid recent set by Schooldays that includes material they played in Britain. I haven't heard a duff record by Vandermark yet. The common complaint about jazz now is that there's nothing new left to discover. Vandermark's coolly erudite matching of resources found within the jazz tradition itself offers one shattering answer to that lazy hypothesis.