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Volume 77, Number 14 | September 5 - 11, 2007

Courtesy Daniel Kraus

A musician’s life, in and out of the spotlight

By Andrey Henkin

“Musician,” a new documentary film on Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark, begins with him struggling over a new piece of music, his frustration audible and visible. This almost vulnerable introduction to an artist sets the tone for the 60-minute film, a portrait far removed from the seediness of VH1’s “Behind the Music” or even the melodrama of “Amadeus.”

In fact, the movie is far less a portrait than a reflection. Vandermark never speaks to the camera directly nor is there any narrative. There is nothing that distinguishes the particular (unknown) timeframe from any other in Vandermark’s career, and the film is not even edited linearly. Unlike the recent overdue biography on Billy Strayhorn, there are no grand conclusions reached in Musician, no litany of colleagues offering their insight. It is one step removed from a photo essay, and that is its masterstroke.

Ken Vandermark inhabits the murky world of avant garde jazz. Raised in New England, but now a fixture in Chicago, he is perhaps best known as one of the recipients of the coveted MacArthur “Genius Grants” — a $500,000 award given (but not applied for) to support the work of an individual for five years. When he won in 1999, the public reacted with the same equal parts derision and applause as when John Zorn won last year. But no one can deny the results. Since receiving the grant, Vandermark has released over 60 albums with projects as diverse as his longstanding Vandermark 5 to CINC, his trio with violin and percussion, to duets with drummer Paal-Nilsson Love. The money, true to its intent and long since spent, has allowed him to be the dedicated and hardworking, titular Musician.

For those who know Vandermark through his many albums or his semi-annual trips to New York — presumably less now with the closing of Tonic, once his prime venue — seeing him out of action is fascinating. The creative process one expects to see is there, but as is the reality for most musicians, it is more often subjugated to the actuality of making a living and balancing myriad responsibilities of “self-employment.” He is seen on the phone booking tours or speaking with poster printers, carrying countless bags on countless tours, rehearsing and soundchecking, playing with his dogs before going away on the road and after coming back. He is often seen in a minivan, sometimes even asleep.

The film is part of Daniel Kraus’ WORK Series, “an ongoing document of the American worker.” The first entry was about a North Carolina sheriff and a forthcoming one will focus on a truck driver. Sandwiching Vandermark between these two successfully removes some of the mystique behind artists. In the final scene, Vandermark plays a solo piece to conclude a gig — the only complete performance of the film — under somewhat harsh lighting at an art gallery, with only the shadows of the audience discernible. This segment is a microcosm of the whole movie, which doesn’t put Vandermark under that kind of light, but is just as illuminating.

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