But put him behind a horn, and the sharpness you see behind Vandermark's eyes turns into intensity. He puts his sax through the wringer with shrieks and full-bodied bellows, discordant blurts and lung-emptying trills. In the space of a half hour he can deliver riffs worthy of James Brown, chunks of startling noise, beautifully lyrical passages, and connective tissue agile enough to make the disparate elements make sense in such proximity.

Vandermark and friends

So while the innocent bystander might not sense it, those who pay attention to contemporary jazz see the man for what he is: one of the few musicians capable of (and devoted to) bridging the gaps between the audiences for hard-core free improvisation, mainstream jazz, and other, more widely popular forms of music.

Vandermark's admirers are many, and at least a few of them have some serious connections. A few years back, one nominated him for a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly referred to as the "genius grant"); and after a rigorous review process, during which the nominee isn't even aware he is under consideration, he was given the grant — about a quarter million dollars, no strings attached, no accounting to anyone required.

The idea behind MacArthur fellowships is that if you find somebody enormously creative and talented, who has demonstrated a drive to stretch the limits of his field, he won't blow the money on sports cars and hookers. This composer was a case in point. Instead of socking the money away, he has been using big chunks of it to fund tours and musical combinations that aren't commercially feasible under ordinary circumstances. (You try taking a 10-piece avant-garde ensemble out on a U.S. tour without some cash in the bank — see how far you get.) Before he had the dough, Vandermark had been instrumental in re-invigorating the free jazz scene in his hometown of Chicago, which had faded since the Art Ensemble of Chicago's prime — now he's doing everything one person can do to take the music to Americans who normally have little access to it. Like, say, San Antonians.

This is more than a case of a musician who likes to take a lot of working holidays. Tours like this are the only way free improvisation is ever going to move out of the ghetto of cult appreciation, because improv is one of the few forms of music that is almost entirely inaccessible unless you see it in person. Only the very, very dedicated should attempt to evaluate this sort of music for the first time on record. Even more than most jazz, free improvisation exists at one point in space and time. It exists in the room where it is created; the inaudible communication between players, and between players and audience, is as much a part of the music as the sounds being produced. To a certain extent, recordings of such events are simply documentary material, or, for the less-involved record buyer, extremely challenging ambient music.

Not that Vandermark limits himself to the rarefied world of free jazz. To get an idea of his eclecticism, check out the latest release by his Spaceways Inc. combo, Version Soul (Atavistic), a disc with one foot in jazz, one in Jamaica, and its ass poking out into funk with a tribute to legendary bassist Larry Graham. Or check out the skronk he lends to bands such as the garage punk Crown Royals. Or the electric guitar-embracing, rock-inflected Vandermark 5. Or the ... you get the idea.

While the saxophonist's recent visits to Austin have sometimes found him in the company of large-ish combos given to freewheeling, beautifully chaotic music, his appearance here will feature a more pared-back grouping. He's playing with two percussionists, Paul Lytton and Paul Lovens, both Europeans. The latter, by some lucky twist of fate, has been through SA more times in the last couple of years than some Texas artists; the former is a frequent collaborator of influential saxophonist Evan Parker.

While such a group may be less accessible for thrill-seekers than a quintet fronted by dueling saxophonists, it provides one of the most promising entry points for music lovers curious to understand the appeal of improvised music, affording the listener/viewer time to soak up exactly how a sound is produced, how unusual, even whimsical objects are used to generate unexpected textures, and most importantly, how one instrumentalist talks to another in a language not taught by Berlitz.

If you've never seen this music, you've never heard it. And you couldn't ask for better tour guides than Vandermark and Company.

Ken Vandermark
with Paul Lytton and Paul Lovens
9:30pm (two sets)
Friday, September 13
The Honey Factory
120 Guadalupe Street