If any single artist can be viewed as an artistic focal point for Lexington's long-running Outside the Spotlight Series of improvisational and free jazz-based performances, it would be Ken Vandermark.
From the combustible baritone saxophone work he added to the Peter Brotzmann Chicago Tentet when OTS made its bow at UK's Memorial Hall in 2002, to the mix of original compositions and what he has long referred to as "free jazz classics" last August at Embrace Church with his own 10-member troupe, Audio One, Vandermark has proven an uncompromising and tireless artist.
That reads onstage in his often volcanic soloing and offstage through constant composing, touring and band leadership for a brand of music that has long been championed critically but has had to fight for any kind of mainstream visibility, even with jazz audiences.
Over the next five days, the modest but very devout ties Vandermark has forged with Kentucky audiences will play out in a mini-residency of concerts and workshops that will be bookended by two very different Lexington performances.
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One continues a run of collaborative OTS shows that has included duo, trio and small combo presentations as well as large ensemble outings with the Chicago Tentet and Audio One. The other will feature Vandermark on his own.
The itinerary begins Friday night with the clarinetist/saxophonist teaming with trumpeter Nate Wooley for a concert at the Mecca dance studio.
Vandermark's previous duo performances in Lexington with drummer Tim Daisy and trio shows during the early OTS days as part of FME (Free Music Ensemble) highlighted a balance of melody, intuitive spirit and, to an extent, swing. But those projects had a drummer to provide at least some level of grounding. The duo setting with the Oregon-born Wooley is all brass. While nowhere near as savage in temperament as the music Vandermark has made with Brotzmann and Mats Gustafsson in the all-saxophone trio Sonore (whose 2004 performance at the old Mecca studio on North Limestone stands as a milestone OTS event), the duo with Wooley will offer its own distinct blend of composed and freely improvised music.
The two released their first album together last month. Titled East By Northwest, the recording chronicles both live and studio performances from last June with Vandermark and Wooley playing each other's works as well as pieces by jazz innovators John Carter and Bobby Bradford.
Then Vandermark will go solo for shows in Louisville and Somerset and an open-to-the-public master class at UK on Tuesday afternoon. He then concludes his Kentucky stay with a free unaccompanied concert at UK's Niles Center that evening.
For all of his many OTS appearances over the years, Vandermark has never played a solo concert here. If such shows are anything akin to his two solo recordings (2003's extraordinary Furniture Music and 2011's Krakow concert album Mark in the Water), the Niles Gallery outing will showcase Vandermark on clarinet, bass clarinet, tenor saxophone and baritone sax. The repertoire of those records features a variety of original compositions and improvisations dedicated to such disparate artists as Jackson Pollock, John Cage, Michelangelo Antonioni and Mississippi Fred McDowell as well as jazz inspirations Brotzmann, Carter and Tentet bandmate Joe McPhee.
In the end, though, Vandermark's Kentucky stay will be an adventure. For audiences open enough to give his performances a listen, the art of jazz in its most immediate and intuitive form will be on display. For Vandermark himself, the residency will chart further territory on a musical voyage that utilizes no familiar pathway. Vandermark would not have it any other way.
"I want to be surprised," Vandermark said before his performance here with Audio One last August. "That's why I do this. I want to create pieces of music that are going to surprise me when I hear them played back. The circumstances of the improviser are that they are going to places they don't expect and that the compositions can embrace that and shift with that and be rediscovered time and time and time again. That's definitely one of the biggest thrills of doing this — setting a thing in motion and then seeing where it goes."