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A Master Improvisor Launches A New Tour With A New Band At BOP STOP

Lily Glick Finnegan, Ken Vandermark, Beth McDonald
Lily Glick Finnegan, Ken Vandermark, Beth McDonald

In all manner of settings, from solo concerts to large group situations, multi-instrumentalist Ken Vandermark has proven his mettle as a fearless and resourceful improvisor. So when two-fifths of his new Edition 55 band were not available to tour, he added a new piece to the remaining players and rechristened the band Edition Redux.

But the story doesn’t end there. The new player, keyboardist Erez Dessel, couldn’t make the tour’s first gig, Vandermark did the math and made 3=2+1. Call it new math or even New Addition, but any way you look at it, Saturday’s New Ghosts concert at BOP STOP—one set by drummer Lily Glick Finnegan with tubist Beth McDonald and a solo set by Vandermark—adds up to an intriguing look at the ever-dynamic Chicago scene.

Since arriving on the shores of Lake Michigan 35 years ago, Vandermark has powered his share of innovations on that scene. His bands, among them AMM, the Vandermark 5, the DKV Trio, AALY, Witches & Devils and Cinghiale, to name a mere handful, have launched the careers of some of today’s most probing improvising musicians. A relentless connector and collaborator, Vandermark forged powerful ties with European improvisors such as Peter Brötzmann, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Terrie Ex many of whom he’s presented as a respected concert organizer. Can it be 24 years since he became a MacArthur Fellow?

Clearly, working with younger musicians keeps the 58-year-old Vandermark in fighting trim. Finnegan, a drummer from Evanston, Illinois who is still in her 20s, received a full scholarship to the Global Jazz Institute at the Berklee College of Music, where she was also part of the Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice. McDonald describes herself as “a classically trained tuba player gone awry,” who employs a battery of signal processing strategies to complement her acoustic playing.

“I’m incredibly inspired by what I’m seeing and hearing from younger players,” Vandermark said by phone from his Chicago home last week. “I’m really fortunate to have this group together where I’m the oldest person in the band and these younger players are kicking my ass. I mean, it’s fantastic.”

This is nothing new for Vandermark who credits the younger players in his Marker band with bringing new ideas to the mix. “they were totally interested in cross-pollinating things,” he said. “Coupled with that, there was a lot more activity from the new music scene, the new composition scene in Chicago with more players from that scene working with improvisers and vice versa.”

And then it all stopped. “Everything got frozen,” Vandermark says of the pandemic years. “A lot of people who were just starting to play, the brakes were put on their activity.”

With the music scene emerging from two years of curtailed performance opportunities and forced isolation, Vandermark senses a subtle shift in the way younger musicians are approaching their craft. “They’re even more focused and disciplined than the crew of people I was seeing who were younger pre-pandemic. And I think part of it is just the nature of how they are as people.”

“They have their own set of ideas,” he said. “They’re playing with different kinds of bands. Lily [is] in a punk rock group. She’s got her own ensemble. She’s a composer. and playing in this group too and doing all kinds of things. Same thing with Beth McDonald, who’s more associated with the new music world. They’ve got a chance to go out and play gigs and they’re totally tearing it up.”

Vandermark has been tearing it up for decades even as he has expanded the scope and range of his musical interests. “I work with improvisation as a method to work with materials in a spontaneous way,” he said, adding that “my record collection is extremely eclectic. There’s a lot of jazz stuff in there, there’s a lot of improvised music stuff in there, But there’s tons of reggae, there’s tons of music from Ethiopia, there’s all kinds of funk, there’s all kinds of rock, hip-hop stuff, new music, etc. And I want to explore all those things in the music I compose. That’s one of the things that drives me.”

Drummer Art Blakey famously said on his 1954 recording A Night At Birdland, “Yes, sir, I’m going to stay with the youngsters – when these get too old, I’m going to get some younger ones. It keeps the mind active.” It’s not surprise that Vandermark, who has been a mentor to his share of younger musicians, endorses that sentiment.

“The players in this band–maybe more than any other group I’ve ever had–they have been able to deal with this range of interests and come at it with depth immediately. I’m getting the ability to go into more compositional ideas than I ever had before and try out different test out different kinds of things because they can deal with everything. They make me want to practice and that’s the highest compliment.”

Ken Vandermark featuring Lily Finnegan and Beth McDonald presented by New Ghosts, Saturday, April 15 8 p.m. at BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave. Cleveland. $20 available here. The concert will be livestreamed here at showtime. The stream is free to view but donations are encouraged and can be made at the ticketing page.

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