Last June, Chicago reedist-bandleader Ken Vandermark convened a high-powered band for a specific and daunting purpose.
Colleague Dave Rempis had asked Vandermark to think of something special he wanted to do to celebrate innovative programming by Elastic, an organization at the forefront of experimental jazz in Chicago. So Vandermark created Midwest School, an ensemble that would explore music by such leading figures as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Julius Hemphill, all instrumentalist-composers who had flourished in Chicago and environs several decades ago.
But Vandermark didn't invent Midwest School simply to perform this repertoire as originally conceived. Instead, he painstakingly transcribed the scores, then re-imagined them for a band that featured latter-day inventors: cornetist Josh Berman, trombonist Jeb Bishop, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Nate McBride, drummer Tim Daisy and reedists Vandermark, Rempis, Nick Mazzarella and Mars Williams.
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The project proved so rewarding, says Vandermark, that he has reconvened Midwest School (with slight change in personnel) for an engagement this weekend at the Green Mill that will be recorded for future release.
Why did Vandermark zero in on music of these particular composers?
"I've been interested for a long time in this kind of unique zeitgeist, with Hemphill, Braxton, Mitchell and Threadgill all being in the Midwest at the same time (the 1960s and '70s), all instrumentalists, all great composers but very different from each other," says Vandermark.
"So I saw this as an opportunity to transcribe the pieces and use them for a larger band and see what happened."
What happened caught Vandermark by surprise. For starters, just putting this music to paper proved tremendously challenging.
"I'm always pretty slow with transcribing, so it's pretty difficult to start with," says Vandermark, who found music of Mitchell particularly elusive.
"He does a solo ('Nonaah') which seems to be a very simple phrase, on the surface. But he does so much with the phrase in terms of pitch and bending the pitch that figuring out what the phrase was was very difficult. It kept going around in my head.
"What he was doing, you can approximate it, but even trying to do that is hard. Then try to deliver that to a group of musicians. It was remarkable how deep the piece was."
As for the other composers, "I was familiar with all their music. Any time you go into the process of transcribing someone's composition, you discover more than you thought you knew.
"But the biggest thing was realizing how strong Julius (Hemphill) is as a composer. His work really stands up against (that of) Roscoe and Braxton and Threadgill, who in some circles are better known because of their association with the AACM," adds Vandermark, referring to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
On a broader scale, Vandermark came to conclude that these four composers – and surely others, as well – summed up a particular esthetic unique to the Midwest. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say they represented several perspectives inspired by a region of the country that stands apart from both coasts, geographically and artistically.
"In a way, that's part of what's so remarkable about all this," says Vandermark, referring to the aforementioned composers. "They're all around the same age, all in the same place around the same time.
"They were very distinctly different composers and improvisers … their whole style was so radically different (from each other), but the thing that was common was that they had nothing to do with the paradigm of what was coming out of New York. None of them sounded like John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, not that they were in opposition.
"But what was happening in the Midwest was so far removed from those things, that these really massive innovators were doing something on a totally different track.
"Being in isolation out here in Chicago and St. Louis gave them a lot of freedom to discover other things, and they were kind of pushing each other to experiment."
After all the effort Vandermark and friends put into that project, he says, it seemed a shame to consign the venture to history. So he has added more pieces to the repertoire for this weekend's run at the Green Mill, as well as a small change in staffing: Adasiewicz has been temporarily sidelined with a back problem, says Vandermark, so Vandermark has recruited violist Jen Clare Paulson, who obviously will bring new colors into the mix.
Vandermark – a formidable innovator himself who won a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant," in 1999 – tours so prolifically that any Chicago appearance stands as a potentially major event. Even so, this one stands out.