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Sylvie Courvoisier Ken Vandermark

CMA Duos: Sylvie Courvoisier & Ken Vandermark

By Peter Margasak

Sylvie Courvoisier photo by Christophe Urbain | Ken Vandermark photo by Petra Cvelbar

The pianist and reedist discuss their ongoing collaborations, the pivotal importance of artistic community, and the challenges of developing sophisticated improvised music in today’s arts economy.

An intricate lattice of collaborations, networks, and communities governs the improvised music world, where new intersections arise suddenly. Chicago reedist and composer Ken Vandermark, a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999, has long embraced a strong DIY ethic, involving an ever-expanding coterie of international players. The Swiss pianist Sylvie Courvoisier has meanwhile established herself as a fixture of the New York scene where, for more than two decades, she has worked within a tight community of artists, many of them connected to the curatorial activities and record productions of composer and saxophonist John Zorn.

A couple of years ago, Vandermark and Courvoisier began playing together, and soon joined forces with trumpeter Nate Wooley and drummer Tom Rainey to form the collective VWCR. The following edited conversation took place in June of 2019, when both musicians performed at Jazz Festival Ljubljana in Slovenia—Vandermark in a duo with fellow reedist Mats Gustafsson and his quartet Made to Break, while Courvoisier performed in her long-running duo with her husband, violinist Mark Feldman, as part of Zorn’s Bagatelles Marathon, where 14 different ensembles interpreted music from his latest book of compositions.

The following conversation took place the morning after their duo performance at Big Ears. The interview has been edited and condensed.

– Peter Margasak

Sylvie Courvoisier: We first met in Mexico City, right?

Ken Vandermark: That’s right. John Zorn got in touch about doing a residency. That must have been in late 2014.

SC: Yeah, it was in November.

KV: He had never contacted me, ever. I was invited to do a residency, and the idea of doing it with you made sense. You had just invited me to stay with you in Brooklyn, which was incredible—I think I stayed with you for a few days, and then with Nate Wooley. That whole residency for me was the first time I ever felt a connection with the New York scene—or at least that aspect of it—and staying with you and Mark [Feldman], and seeing how hard you guys work, was really significant for me. The discipline and the devotion to music—it was really inspiring.

SC: We played with Ingrid [Laubrock] at the Stone, and Chris [Corsano].

KV: How did you meet John and start working with him?

SC: I first met him when I was 16. I went to hear him with Naked City in Willisau [Switzerland] and I was like, what the f*** was that? I had never heard anything like it in my life. Before that gig, I knew his name, but afterwards I bought a lot of albums and I did some research. I never imagined that one day I would be moving to New York and would be working with him. When I met Mark—I think I was 25—he invited me to come to New York for two weeks. When I arrived, he was in the studio, where he was recording with John. He told me to come by. I was just sitting there, listening. It’s very inspiring to be around John and I’m a huge fan. He’s really a hard worker. He’s like, ‘Here, I wrote 70 new pieces for solo piano, check them out.’ I’m like, ‘This week you did that? What?’ It really pushes other musicians to be better. For me, it’s the main reason why I stayed in New York. I’m not a fan of the city. It’s because of the community. Meeting you, meeting people, is how you learn. School is good, but I was a bad student. I think you learn by meeting other musicians and being inspired by their lives, how they work, what you see of their daily life. Music is a life commitment.

KV: As often as possible, it starts with the music. You hear somebody and think, wow, that’s someone I want to play with. It kind of started for me when I met Mats Gustafsson in the mid-90s, when he came to Chicago for the first time. To meet someone who was also a saxophone player, basically the same age, and who had interests in other kinds of music, too, aside from improvised music and jazz—it was like, holy crap, this is a musical brother I had never met. From that point on, I’ve kept meeting people in Europe that I feel a strong connection to. At home, there are great players, and more recently I’ve made connections with players in New York like you or Nate Wooley or Tom Rainey. But for years it was always European players that I keyed into. And it’s completely impractical. Almost every band I’ve had, if it wasn’t Chicago-based, it included Europeans. I had leeway with that early, with the MacArthur money. The European history of this music is super interesting to me— what happened with the German scene and the Dutch scene and the English scene and the way they thought about music, and how that connects in part to the early years of the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians]. For some reason, that loop of activity sort of jumped over New York, and I don’t have a good reason for why, but it’s really interesting to see that open up now, too.

SC: I’m very spoiled in New York. Why do I need to hire a European drummer when I have so many choices in New York? I have a drum set in my house. I spend so much time on the road; if I can do the rehearsal and the recording at home, that’s where I want to do it. I still play with Europeans, like [pianists] Jacques Demierre and Irene Schweizer, and there are Europeans I would love to play with. But I love to practice and run tunes and try stuff, or just to improvise. All of my bands need to practice. I think the world is so open now. For sure there is still a Dutch style, and there is a French way of playing; the time is different. And there are great pianists in Italy, and great bassists in Norway. But now I think it’s less and less obvious because of globalization, because people can move so easily.

KV: One thing that’s true about New York is that it’s an international cultural capital. It’s sort of like Berlin—you have so many people who are not German living in Berlin. Chicago is really an American city.

SC: Totally, yes. So, shifting gears: we each brought three pieces in for our quartet project. I brought two older ones that I’ve used in other bands, and one piece that I wrote for the project.

KV: I always write for the people in the group. At that point, I had done a little playing with you and a lot of playing with Nate, and if you compare the duo pieces I’ve done with Nate and this quartet, they’re really different. That’s because of how I’m thinking about the instrumentation, but it’s also because of how I’m thinking about Nate’s connection to jazz history and how he thinks, and about your playing. I write a different kind of tune for this situation. There’s no bass—that was really purposeful.

SC: So you wrote these pieces specifically for this group?

“I try to create scenarios where I'm forced to keep writing because I learn a lot from doing it" - Ken Vandermark

KV:I always write for the people in the group. At that point, I had done a little playing with you and a lot of playing with Nate, and if you compare the duo pieces I’ve done with Nate and this quartet, they’re really different. That’s because of how I’m thinking about the instrumentation, but it’s also because of how I’m thinking about Nate’s connection to jazz history and how he thinks, and about your playing. I write a different kind of tune for this situation. There’s no bass—that was really purposeful.

SC: So you wrote these pieces specifically for this group?

KV: Yeah, I did. Not having the bass was a big part of it. It’s kind of like a jazz group, instrumentally, but it’s also not, because of the trajectory of motion. If something’s in time, it’s really different without the propulsion of a bass. Tom [Rainey] is an amazing, kind of orchestral drummer; he can cover so many things. The writing sensibility is totally different—all three of us are very different composers. Your stuff is pretty loose. There was the one piece with the cues that had a structure, but the others were, ‘Here is the theme and let’s see where it goes.’ Nate’s pieces were very organized—they almost had a flow chart from start to finish. Mine were somewhere in between. We’d rehearse and say, ‘That doesn’t work,’ so we’d try something else. For me, composing is about trying to find different ways to write music for people who are improvising, and not have it be a head tune, and experimenting with that. Last year when we played at the Green Mill [in Chicago]…

SC: That’s when we really began to find ourselves.

KV: Yeah, that was extraordinary. We had to play three sets each night and we only had nine tunes. We did three tunes a set. The way they are on the record, they’re like seven minutes long and that’s only twenty minutes of music. I was very nervous about how we were going to do it, but we stretched the stuff out and the improvised nature of the band just blew up. It was super exciting. It was very risk-taking music in a more mainstream jazz club, and it all connected. It felt like the audience was with us.

SC: That’s when we really began to find ourselves.

KV: Yeah, I was really surprised about it. The group became much stronger after these gigs, and I think the idea of having less material and more openness was better.

Sylvie Courvoisier Ken Vandermark Ingrid Laubrock Chris Corsano The Stone New York City 2016

Courvoisier and Vandermark performing with Ingrid Laubrock and Chris Corsano in 2016
Photo: Peter Gannushkin/DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET

SC: That’s when we really began to find ourselves.

KV: Yeah, that was extraordinary. We had to play three sets each night and we only had nine tunes. We did three tunes a set. The way they are on the record, they’re like seven minutes long and that’s only twenty minutes of music. I was very nervous about how we were going to do it, but we stretched the stuff out and the improvised nature of the band just blew up. It was super exciting. It was very risk-taking music in a more mainstream jazz club, and it all connected. It felt like the audience was with us.

SC: Yeah, I was really surprised about it. The group became much stronger after these gigs, and I think the idea of having less material and more openness was better.

KV: Whether it was a piece of yours or Nate’s that I was looking at, everybody had input, so some pieces were adjusted. Tom didn’t compose any pieces, so to speak, but he had a huge impact on how the pieces came together and the way they were defined. So, in a sense, he really was one of the composers. It was very collaborative. What will be really interesting is to do a follow-up, where the band can bring in new material and tour with it and play a bunch, then make another record. This was just a starting point.

SC: For sure—now I would write differently. Usually I write for a specific band. For my trio, I really think about Kenny [Wollesen] and Drew [Gress], or about Mark, for the duo. Here, I just didn’t have time. I wrote one thinking of everybody, and I said, ‘This tune will work.’ I like sometimes to take one tune and play it in different bands. It’s so different.

KV: I’ve tried that, and it hasn’t been successful for me. Ab Baars is a guy I really admire. He said to me, ‘Why do you keep writing new things? Why don’t you have a look back at your material? You can learn a lot from it.’ Years ago, I tried to do that with a project with the Vandermark 5. We had Håvard Wiik and Magnus Broo join as guests, and I thought, I can re-arrange some old pieces. I went through the book, and I didn’t really want to play them—I felt no connection. I couldn’t even find a way to re-look at that material and think it through.

SC: I have a tune I’ve been playing for twenty years. And I love that. I don’t get tired of them. This piece, ‘Éclats for Ornette,’ which I renamed ‘Sparks’ in our band, I’ve played with Mary [Halvorson], with Mark, with my trio, and I’m going to play it with Angelika Niescier. Some tunes work, and I’m interested to see how people react to them, how they improvise with them. I think: I have so many possibilities with this tune—because I play it with different people, and they give me different ideas.

KV: Because it changes the way you play on it.

SC: Exactly. It’s almost like a standard. Zorn wrote 300 bagatelles, and it’s interesting to hear how every band—if you go to one of the marathons—uses this material. It’s just little cues, and how they rearrange or rework it to make their own language.

“What I really believe in in this world are communities. It's beautiful, because it's how we will survive—not by working in our little corner.” -Sylvie Courvoisier

KV: What you’re talking about and what Ab suggested makes complete sense to me, and that’s why I tried it. But when I tried it, it didn’t work for my brain somehow. In each different period, I’m looking at hyper-specific things and writing for a very specific group of people. Once that’s happened and it’s been investigated to a certain point, then I’m thinking about another thing. I try to create scenarios where I’m forced to keep writing because I learn a lot from doing it.

SC: When I find time, I like to write. I just wrote five tunes for my trio because we were on the road for three weeks. Before a tour, I always try to get new material, but if I don’t have a band or something special I have to write for, I don’t really take the time to write.

KV: It’s all deadlines for me. I don’t have a method of composing everyday. It’s, ‘OK, I have to have this music done because this project’s happening.’ And there’s lots of these projects in motion. The deadline is the motivator, and I think I do that on some subconscious level to make sure it keeps happening. I really miss the period when the Vandermark 5 played every week at the Empty Bottle [in Chicago]. We would rehearse every Monday and play every Tuesday, every week of the year. I could just keep writing stuff, we could play it, and if it didn’t work I could either throw it away or adjust it, and that process of writing and writing, if I could do that forever, I’d be really happy.

SC: It’s more built around tours for me. I like to have long-standing bands. The duo with Mark has been active for twenty years, my trio has been around for six years, and we try to do at least two tours a year and gigs in New York. I like to work with the same people a lot.

KV: The situation for playing this music is so difficult now, in terms of developing stuff. If you have a long-standing group, like you’re talking about, you’ve invested time and energy in developing an aesthetic with these people that you play with. When you only have a short amount of time—with Made to Break, there might be two days of rehearsal, and then we go on tour and have to learn a book of new tunes—it’s impossible. It takes the entire tour to figure out.

SC: But even if you’re in New York, it’s the same thing. We need to keep busy in order to survive, and it’s getting too hectic.

KV: When I look at the recordings of music I really admire, almost always it’s by bands that have a kind of history. And the only way you can develop that aesthetic and ensemble strength is by doing a lot of work. Duke Ellington’s band sounded the way it did because they played all the time and, in a way, I feel I’m personally competing with that kind of legacy. How am I supposed to make music as strong as that if I have one arm tied behind my back continually because I can’t rehearse long enough, or because I have to write material that’s easy to learn quickly? I love writing large ensemble stuff, and I would really like to, but you can’t rehearse it in one day. You really have to have time, and that’s a huge economic burden. If you get invited to a festival are they going to let you be there for a week extra and rehearse everyday with a band so you can present something? Sometimes you get lucky, but it’s really challenging.

SC: In Sardinia I saw you doing that, rehearsing in the hotel.

KV: Oh yeah, that was with Mats’ band, the NU Ensemble.

SC: I was going to the beach and all of you guys were practicing. I think, for the improvised music scene, it’s getting harder. There’s less money; the festivals don’t pay as much. Some of the fees they propose, it’s ridiculous, and you always have to fight for more. And there are always musicians who will play for so little. I’m doing some other jobs, like I’m playing The Rite of Spring with this great flamenco dancer Israel Galván and another pianist, Cory Smythe. That’s a good paying gig, with three weeks of paid rehearsals, and then we play a big theater for ten days. It’s a luxury to do this kind of thing and I love it. But improvised musicians have to be careful not to accept low-paying gigs. It’s hard. You’re always behind.

KV: Since when I started touring in the mid-90s in the States and Europe, it has changed so radically. Every aspect of trying to play independent non-commercial music has changed. It used to be possible to take sort of a punk attitude, get in the van, drive around, play shows, sell merch, and make it work. You used to be able to sell enough merch at a show that it would be equivalent to your fee in many cases. Now it’s like maybe one fifth of that money. In Europe, every government becomes more right wing, and when they do that, they cut more money from the arts, which means there’s less money going to different programmers, which means there’s fewer shows with good fees, which means they’re further and further apart, which means that the travel is more expensive to get to them. When I was doing stuff with Atavistic Records, those quintet records would sell 5,000 copies, and now if you sell 500 copies of an album, that’s good. Those were funds that went the artist.

SC: I think my first record was on Enja, and we sold 5,000 copies—which was normal—and now if you sell 1,000, you’re happy. You have to work harder and you have to be more open to do different stuff. Galván asked me to work with him ten years ago, and back then, I wasn’t really interested in working with a dancer. But I love it. I learned Spanish, I learned about different communities. I love communities; I love to see how people work. What I really believe in in this world is communities. It’s beautiful, because it’s how we will survive—not by working in our little corner.

KV: I think that’s a really good point. When I think of all the different musicians I work with in different places—like you or Nate in New York, or Terrie [Hessels] in the Netherlands, meeting Ethiopian musicians through Terrie—there are communities at work. In Chicago, there are all kinds of intersections with other scenes and communities, and that broader set of activity is the thing that will keep it going. The musicians are the ones who are going to make the thing work. It’s not going to be the presenters, it’s not going to be the record labels or the writers, it’s going to be the musicians, because they’re the ones who really want to play. You said it right—you can’t do it in your own corner, on your own.


Peter Margasak spent the last 23 years as a staff music writer at the Chicago Reader. He recently left his position to write a book on the collision of avant-garde jazz, post-rock, and experimental music in Chicago during the 1990s. He also programs the Frequency Series, an acclaimed contemporary music concert series at the Chicago multi-arts venue Constellation.


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