Critics have argued that reed player Ken Vandermark has single-handedly revitalized the Chicago jazz scene. While this may be a bit of an overstatement, the composer/improviser's high level of musicianship and relentless activity have drawn worldwide attention to the Windy City's booming creative jazz community. Since 1994 Vandermark has led or co-led more than 40 recording sessions with a dozen or so groups, including the Steelwool Trio, the DKV Trio, Steam, Caffeine, the NRG Ensemble, and the Vandermark Five. He's also appeared on tenor sax and various clarinets on excellent albums by top bandleaders such as German free-jazz titan Peter Brötzmann and New York guitarist Joe Morris. In 1999, at the age of 35, he received the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a prestigious honor awarded in the past to innovators like Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman.
Vandermark is humble about his achievements to date, knowing that he wouldn't be where he is if it weren't for the contributions of those before him. This reverence seems to be the chief message of School Days, his collaboration with Chicago trombonist Jeb Bishop and the Swedish rhythm section of bassist Ingebrigt Häker-Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love. The trans-Atlantic quartet pays tribute to old-school tradition with deeply swinging, bluesy compositions that bristle with contemporary arrangements and one-of-a-kind leads. The songs run the gamut from N'awlins swagger (“Rosmosis”) to introspective balladry (“Passenger”), and from compressed intensity (“Counteraction”) to expansive post-bop groove (“Broad Daylight”). In direct homage to his forebears, Vandermark's bass clarinet solo on “Daylight” soars with the bird-cry energy of '60s avant-gardist Eric Dolphy. He also dedicates his compositions to various jazz “teachers” like Mal Waldron and Teddy Charles. Fueled by the past and pitched toward the future, School Days demonstrates the value of a complete jazz education.