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Culture Desk

Saxophonist brings the noise

Ken Vandermark — who often has many projects going at once — returns to the Newport Jazz Festival. Ken Vandermark — who often has many projects going at once — returns to the Newport Jazz Festival.
By Steve Greenlee
Globe Staff / May 29, 2010

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I’ve long been impressed by the way Ken Vandermark thumbs his nose at convention. The 45-year-old saxophonist and clarinet player, who grew up in Natick and lives in Chicago, is virtually a household name in Eastern Europe, where he tours with his many groups, most notably the Vandermark 5, his flagship band, which currently includes a second saxophonist, a bassist, a drummer, and an electric cellist.

Vandermark is not so well known, though, in his own country, where musical tastes run fairly mainstream. Even among free jazzers, he’s something of an outsider. Essentially he sounds like a jazz musician playing punk rock, so no one knows where to slot him. Rock clubs don’t want an avant-garde group led by a saxophonist; jazz clubs don’t want him because his music doesn’t conform with conventional ideas of what jazz should sound like (and therefore doesn’t fill enough seats).

Vandermark — who won a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant’’ in 1999 — caught a break last summer, however, when the Vandermark 5 finally played the Newport Jazz Festival. The audience loved the set, and the festival’s founder, George Wein, was so impressed that he invited Vandermark back this summer. He’s bringing a different (and noisier) group, Powerhouse Sound, this August. Now, this is no surprise; Vandermark is known for being prolific and restless; he typically has several different bands going at the same time.

That said, his newest project is his most out-there yet. The quartet, called Lean Left, teams Vandermark and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who are frequent collaborators, with a Dutch punk rock duo known as the Ex Guitars. Noisy, aggressive, and angry, Lean Left makes Peter Brotzmann sound like the Carpenters. The Lean Left album just came out, and — warning — it’s not for the faint of ears.