When wholly improvised music — meaning music conjured entirely in the moment without compositional or even melodic preconceptions — is created between two musicians, one might think that being total strangers would be a plus. After all, if you don't know your fellow improviser, you certainly won't know what kind of music he or she will bring to the table.
Saxophonist Ken Vandermark and drummer Tim Daisy don't possess that unfamiliarity. The two are longtime friends and musical cohorts. One, in fact, is pretty much a protégé of the other. And at last count, these two veterans of Chicago's famed improvisational music community play together in at least three ensembles in addition to the duo configuration that brings them back to Kentucky for an Outside the Spotlight performance at the Downtown Arts Center. Yet, when they meet onstage Saturday, the idea will be to present music that exists outside of their personal and musical relationships. It will be jazz based solely on the immediate ideas the players throw at each other at that instant.
"One of the things I like about how we play together is the fact that we're interested in finding ways to create structure spontaneously, so that what we play ultimately feels like realized pieces of music," Vandermark said.
"Sometimes when I improvise with other people, the music remains in a kind of abstract territory. But with Tim, I really feel like we're trying to create new songs on the spot. And that's really exciting to me, to push the melodies further and further. It's a different kind of risk."
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"It's very important to listen to each other in this kind of setting," Daisy said. "But it's also important not to get into a space where you're being reactionary. What I mean by that is, I don't listen to what Ken does and then try to copy it. That generally lends itself to poor improvising, in my opinion. But you can listen to what he's doing and do your own thing — you know, manipulate it, change it around and then give something back, so that the music has the flow of a real conversation.
"Of course, it can also be really effective to just throw a wrench in there and do something that's completely different from what he's doing. As long as we're listening and understanding each other, those contrasts can really work."
A prolific composer and bandleader, and a soloist and improvising musician of often-volcanic intensity, Vandermark has long been viewed as a mentor to many younger Chicago musicians working around him. Among them is Daisy.
"Ken has really helped me develop a focused determination when it comes to playing," the drummer said. "But he also has helped me to trust my instincts. He has given me permission, in a way, to go on my own path regardless of any kind of critique I might get from anybody. He's pretty fearless in that way."
For Vandermark, watching artists like Daisy mature to the point where he can learn from them, especially in a performance situation, is especially gratifying.
Said Vandermark, "The amount Tim has developed as far as being a unique musician is remarkable. But I don't think of that, though, as, 'Oh, he came up playing with me.' Tim is pushing me. He is dealing with the same kinds of musical ideas I'm wrestling with. He's trying to push the music in a new territory. I mean, his ideas are fantastic. So I feel very much like we're a pair. He has a whole set of influences that are totally different than mine, yet they are very complementary. So I have a very special connection to him."
That connection, at least in terms of Lexington performances, began with the inaugural Outside the Spotlight performance — a November 2002 concert (also at the Downtown Arts Center) in which Daisy played opposite Vandermark as a substitute drummer in the Free Music Ensemble. But most of their joint appearances locally have been confined to the Vandermark 5, the internationally acclaimed quintet that Vandermark recently disbanded.
The two play jointly in Vandermark's Resonance Ensemble (a large group comprised of Chicago and European players), Topology (an eight-member band devoted to the music of saxophonist Joe McPhee) and Made to Break (a quartet combining jazz and free-style electronics). In addition, Vandermark and Daisy recently issued their third recording as an improvising duo, The Conversation, on the Polish Multi-Kulti label.
So Vandermark and Daisy will be anything but strangers when they create exclusively improvised music at the Downtown Arts Center this weekend.
"We have such a long history that we have developed this kind of musical vocabulary between us," Daisy said. "So when we get into these free improvisations, it's only natural for us to go back and use that vocabulary.
"But how do we get out of that and break into new territory every night? For me, that's one of the most intriguing things about having this music change every night. Getting to that new territory is what I'm most interested in."