By Kevin O'Connor
Vancouver, Canada has just completed the Northwest's premier jazz festival, and jazz in all its forms never sounded better. The ten-day festival celebrated its twentieth year, included over 400 shows around the city, and was once again made possible by over 1000 incredible volunteers and staff from the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society. While it is hard to comprehend, let alone hear so many groups crammed into concert halls, clubs and community centers, this celebration of musical creativity can be captured and savored as I did, even over one weekend. Here's why I'd suggest a trip or two up to Vancouver next year to catch great jazz.
I had a few reasons in attending this year's festival. One was to catch artists from outside of North America since jazz has always been influenced by worldly experiences and shaped by these musicians. I have been expanding my listening to include these international players. This international element is something Vancouver excels in year after year and a highlight for this year was the 25-piece group from Britain, the Dedication Orchestra. Their music extended the spirit of the legendary Blue Notes, the mixed race band that left apartheid South Africa in the 1960's and settled in London. The British jazz scene absorbed this mix of bop, township jive and free jazz and the impact can still be felt today. Just watching the only remaining living Blue Note, Louis Moholo, play the drums in this year's festival was fantastic. Reed player Evan Parker and vocalists Phil Minton and Maggie Nichols had their own shows as well. The Nordic jazz line-up was stellar with groups from Sweden, Denmark and Finland with an early festival highlight coming with Free Fall where Ken Vandermark hooked up with Norwegian's Havard Wiik and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten. At one of the nightly jam sessions at O'Douls, Dave Holland caught up with many of his British friends over a few pints as members of his band including Chris Potter and Kevin Eubanks sat in and jammed. Thanks to the support of many countries' governments and cultural institutes, groups like the Italian Instabile Orchestra and the quartet Kartet from France were able to perform this year. What will next year bring?
I also looked forward to many of these concerts because of the wonderful venues for watching the musicians and hearing the music. Over in East Vancouver, just off Commercial Drive is the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. This intimate setting couldn't be better place to hear jazz. A somewhat funky old two story wood structure provided up-close views from the floor and excellent viewing of large ensembles from the balcony. Performance Works on Granville Island showcased a mix of jazz-influenced music, stretching out each night with the likes of the Gangbe Brass Band, Rez Abbasi's Snake Charmer and Brink Man Ship. Another late-night spot, called Ironworks, was new to this year's festival. Just east of Gastown in an area of artist lofts, this hip place with its industrial equipment, old-growth timber beams, and art-covered walls warmed everyone up. It included a back room and patio for the overflow crowd checking out the music and let people really experience a connection with the players.
Free events happen throughout the festival, but they particularly packed in the crowds during the final weekend of events at Granville Island's Canada Day celebration and the "festival within a festival" near Yaletown. The latter took place at the Roundhouse Community Centre which included three indoor venues featuring experimental jazz and an outdoor stage at David Lam Park overlooking False Creek. Vancouver's local jazz players showcased new works or played in new ensembles, while exceptional workshops were offered by the likes of Roscoe Mitchell and Kiran Ahluwahlia, as well as small groups formed by members of the Dedication Orchestra. Grooving to Dr. Lonnie Smith and watching the crowds get up for Sharon Jones and the Dap Band on a beautiful Vancouver summer night was magical.
Two of the largest venues showcased the best in today's jazz and international music. The Centre for the Performing Arts and the Commodore Ballroom were the perfect places to catch the likes of the Terrance Blanchard sextet and late night grooving to Lila Downs and Rachid Taha.
This year I saw other intrepid jazz lovers who had journeyed up from Seattle, but with over forty concert venues the festival is capable of absorbing a lot more from our region, since just two weeks later, hordes of Seattle's faithful cross the border to share in the celebration that is the Vancouver Folk Music Festival. If you are so someone who looks forward to experiencing jazz in a festival settings, as I am, your year is pretty much set. You can visit the Portland Jazz festival in February, Centrum's Jazz Port Townsend in August and Seattle's Earshot and Ballard jazz festivals in the autumn; all of which are worth attending. Life, as far a jazz is concerned, doesn't end at the Canadian border, and for anyone who is willing, an outstanding event awaits those who venture only a few hours north; hope to see you at the 2006 Vancouver International Jazz Festival.