In 1991 bassist Kent Kessler started an informal jazz trio with percussionist Michael Zerang and guitarist Chris DeChiara. The group thought the addition of a horn player might bring greater depth to their sound, so they rang up a young saxophonist named Ken Vandermark. "It looked like he had been at home writing for the last two years, he had such a huge stack of tunes," says Kessler, chuckling. "So I said to Michael, 'Let's name the group after him and let him book all of the gigs.'" The Vandermark Quartet became a turning point in the saxist's career, launching him to future prominence. But for the bassist it was just business as usual.
Bull Fiddle, released on Okka Disk a few weeks ago, is the 49th recording Kessler's played on. But it's the first with his name on the cover. Nine of its dozen tracks feature just him and his battered upright; Zerang joins him on the others. Over the years he's earned a reputation as a team player, a musician whose contributions, rarely in the foreground, help foment inspired improvisation. He's been ubiquitous on the local free-jazz scene since 1985, when he joined Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble; he's worked with important European players like Peter Brotzmann and Georg GrŠwe. And he's anchored just about all of Vandermark's groups.
"I don't have grand ambitions," says Kessler, who turns 46 this week. "I love to play and I love the way the instrument sounds, but it's not like I have an overriding musical vision."
Kessler's first instrument was the trombone, which he picked up as a ten-year-old living on Cape Cod. He was 13 when his family moved to Chicago, where he dreamed about becoming a folksinger; he learned guitar and immersed himself in Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie songbooks. His family life was somewhat eccentric. His father was a failed minister turned acidhead and his mother went from seeing a psychotherapist to becoming one herself. A classic problem child who used drugs and skipped school, Kessler was in adult group therapy by the time he was 15. "I was living in the vanguard of nuttiness," he says.
Around that time a PBS show on the Montreux Jazz Festival gave Kessler his first real taste of jazz and fired his imagination. In his sophomore year at Senn High School he met another fledgling jazz fan, a guitarist named Dan Scanlan. Together they'd drop acid, listen to electric Miles, and jam. But their good times were short-lived. Halfway through Kessler's junior year his poor attendance got him kicked out
of school. He moved out on his own and waited tables at Gare St. Lazare in Lincoln Park; after stashing enough money for tuition, he spent a year at Saint Mary's Center for Learning, a now-defunct progressive high school on the west side. "It was like a diploma factory," says Kessler. "I told them I would write a paper comparing the narrative form of Light in August to jazz form. I did it in three hours on the night before it had to be in, and I got an entire class credit for it. Gym class consisted of driving around in a van and recycling newspapers."
No one Kessler was jamming with played bass, so he figured out the basics on his own. After Saint Mary's he took four years of electric bass lessons and began studying jazz theory. But over time Kessler's interest in jazz was supplanted by a fascination with Stockhausen and collective music making. By 1977 he, Scanlan, and newer friends Zerang and guitarist Norbert Funk had formed the Neutrino Orchestra, a texture-obsessed ensemble that used graphic scores and toy instruments and indulged in what Kessler calls "fake Middle Eastern improv." Still, he was skeptical about his future as a musician. "I was serious, but I also really believed that I sucked," he says.
In 1978 he started studying composition at Roosevelt University, but he was restless, and after a few years of part-time education he spent a long winter traveling in Brazil with a girlfriend. He came back to Chicago in 1981, reenrolled at Roosevelt, and formed another group with Zerang, Musica Menta, an experimental project with a fluid cast of players. They secured a monthly gig at Link's Hall at a time when the improvised-music scene was nowhere near as active or well regarded as it is today. Musicians and listeners alike were scarce; after one show the band took all three members of the audience out for drinks.
Kessler had bought an upright bass a few years earlier; as he began to practice more intently, his interest in jazz returned. He stepped up his pace even more when Hal Russell invited him to play bass in the NRG Ensemble, the chaotic juggernaut that sowed the seeds of the 90s free-jazz explosion. "The first time I saw them I worked the door for them, and the next time I was playing with them," says Kessler. "I understood what they were trying to do really well, but my chops were not exactly there, so I had to work my ass off just to keep up in the beginning." That group became the bassist's first steady jazz gig. The NRG Ensemble toured Europe extensively and recorded a pair of superb albums for ECM Records before Russell's death in 1992.
But Vandermark has been Kessler's main collaborator. They've played together in Steam, the DKV Trio, Steelwool, Territory Band, FJF, and the Vandermark 5, among others. The saxophonist also occupied Russell's chair during an NRG performance at a memorial for the ensemble's leader; it was meant to be a one-off, but the group had such a blast they decided to keep things going, making three albums.
Kessler had written a bit--he contributed tunes to Russell's group and occasionally brought them in for the Vandermark Quartet--but as his schedule filled up he was rarely motivated to compose. "It got to the point that I didn't have to, so I didn't," he says. But a lull in 2001 got him thinking about making his own record, an idea he'd toyed with since seeing a 1995 solo performance by German bassist Peter Kowald, and eventually he took the plunge. Kessler says he hopes to lead his own group someday, but he admits that, like many folks who play his instrument, he has no burning desire to be the center of attention. "With my personality," he says, "it's just too easy to go ahead and be the bass player."
Kessler performs at 3030 on Thursday, January 30; he'll play a solo set and then one with Zerang. See Jazz listings for more details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.