Two painters share a canvas. One uses watercolors, the other oils. One studied the masters, and the other grew up on pop art. In minutes, the artists mesh those disparate styles -- and many others -- into a coherent painting in front of a live audience.
And they pull it off without uttering a word to each other, preferring the painting do all the talking.
You can hear something akin to that scenario Sunday, when world renowned reeds-man Ken Vandermark and drummer-in-demand Tim Daisy -- two heavy hitters from Chicago's vibrant free music scene -- perform on the cozy Century stage as part of their 10-date tour.
Like our fictional painters, the goal of free music players is to push past expectations and preconceptions into uncharted artistic territory. With that in mind, Daisy and Vandermark will be composing on the fly without even the most basic charts. It's a 10-day dialogue whose only limitations are the instruments' and the players' imaginations. (Vandermark's playing clarinet, bass clarinet, and baritone and tenor sax; Daisy's using two different drum kits.)
"By nature, it's got to be about risk," says Vandermark, a MacArthur Fellow who in 1999 was named by Down Beat magazine one of the top 25 young improvisers in the world. "If it isn't, then it's not really attacking the idea of the search, which is the main reason I play this music."
That search is often -- though wrongly -- assumed to be solely the aesthetic offspring of '60s free jazz. In part, that's because records like John Coltrane's Interstellar Space, a set of incendiary 1967 duets with drummer Rashied Ali, still stand as improvisational Rosetta stones. But there's much more that goes into today's free form playing.
"If you pick up a saxophone, the first thing anybody thinks of is jazz, so that's one of the preconceptions you fight against," says Vandermark, whose website play-lists run the gamut from dub and indie rock to classical and Dixieland.
Daisy, bred on everything from punk and metal to modern classical, echoes the thought: "I listen to all this different music, and it's going to come out inevitably unless I force it not to, and I don't want to do that. But I also have to think, is this style or influence serving the music we're playing right now?"
Decisions like that form the backbone of improvisation, and more than any other format the duo setting illuminates the give-and-take nature of on-the-spot composition; "If something's not working, the number of people that can fix the problem are reduced," laughs Vandermark, "and if something is working, the communication is accelerated." With reeds and drums, the players can also shift between the traditional and "secondary" roles of their instruments, exploring the melodic qualities of percussion and the rhythmic possibilities of horns, for instance.
Of course, it don't mean a thing if the players can't swing it. Vandermark and Daisy have played together in this duo setting only twice before this tour, but they each have extensive experience playing in other duets. They're also more than just sympathetic fellow travelers in the free music scene: Daisy's been a member of the highly touted Vandermark 5 since 2001, and the two play together in the Frame Quartet, along with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and bassist Nate McBride. The rest of their resumes, including the multiple groups they lead and others they collaborate in, read like a Who's Who of the free music world.
But familiarity can be a curse as well, leading to the pitfall of repetition. Daisy calls that one of the biggest challenges he faces creating new music. But he credits Vandermark's compositional vision -- even in a totally free setting -- with keeping the music from anything resembling a rut.
"He's constantly pushing me to get out of those pitfalls, and to come up with new material," says Daisy. "He's really focusing hard on the overall piece as he builds it, in a compositional sense. He's always thinking, 'how will this make sense later?' "
For Vandermark, too, it's a balancing act between the known and unknown.
"You're asking lots of questions about what the music should do, and simultaneously you're trying to support the work of the other musician," he says. "It's kind of a dance between taking too much risk and playing it too safe."
Ken Vandermark and Tim Daisy play Century (2005 Central Ave.) Sunday, July 1, at 8 p.m. The Eastern Seaboard opens. Tickets are a mere $5.