2010 TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival: Days 7-10


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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-10
TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
June 25th—July 4th 2010

Day 7

Celebrations of "Canada Day" (acknowledging the country's 1867 birthday, formerly known as Dominion Day previous to 1982) filled city streets, parks and water walkways on Thursday, July 1st, with the country's red and white national colors, small hand-held maple leaf flags on sticks, as well as loads of free outdoor events, concerts included.

Rumba Calzada, a Latin Jazz and salsa favorite for Vancouverites and one of a half-dozen scheduled bands performing on a stage set up near the re-lit Olympic flame just east of Vancouver's Harbour Green Park had folks dancing, while on Granville Island, VIJF scheduled free concerts by 15 bands on five separate stages from noon up until just 'round midnight! (It was a well-placed day off for World Cup competition, too, so the national holiday had everyone's undivided attention)

The late afternoon Studio 700 concert at the CBC/Radio-Canada complex brought more head-to-head combat between pianist Paul Plimley and drummer Han Bennink back to the stage, this time on a new "battle field." Caught in the crossfire, though, was German reedman Frank Gratkowski, who brought an arsenal of horns, most rendered useless under the given circumstances the reedman surely had not anticipated. Hopeful, starting on bass clarinet, Gratkowski soon reached for his alto sax in the first group improvisation, just so to be heard over the ever- competitive rhythmic pounding of his band mates. The third collective improvisation started with a minute or so of unaccompanied drumming by the polyrhythmic Dutchman before the ever-still confident Gratkowski joined, playing alto with loud deep breaths and resonating reed pops for a solid minute. However, while mid- idea, even mid-breath, the drummer left the reedman out on a short plank by abruptly dropping out altogether; he stretched out his right arm, stick in hand, announced the saxophonist's name and as a result cut short any further sonic exploration. The ever-comical Plimley, who was readying to join in before the drummer brought things to this immediate halt, jested by removing his hands from being positioned just inches above the keys he was intending to press, and cracked his knuckles instead, whispering "phewwww," as if that was one of the more demanding pieces they'd play. The final two three-way improvisations were 4- 5 minutes each, making for another Plimley-Bennink express set (24 minutes), serving as one of the most amazing, if at the very least intense, piano-drum duos, though a less successful piano/reeds/drums trio.

Of course, most folks hung out for the second set to get their money's-worth (well, actually all Studio 700 shows were free). With the next set clocking in at just under 34 minutes, the two taken together added up to a more solid and well-rounded set of music, as this latter half included two extended trio improvisations: one clocking in at near 10 minutes, while the closer was just a tad bit longer than the entirety of the first set. The latter also presented an easing of tensions, so to speak. With Bennink playing extensively on brushes, the musical possibilities allowed Plimley to play more pastorally with melodic lines that encouraged Gratkowski, now feeling a bit more comfortable (though perhaps skeptical too that this would last) to pick up his clarinet for the first time. He later would play his alto again, performing a bit more of an extended duo than what transpired during the first set with the drummer, and offering a bit of a reprieve from the piano-drums (ec)centricity. Bennink, moving from behind his kit, took a seat towards the front of the stage on which he played his sticks, then swiveled around and banged on his kick drum from where he sat before again taking his seat to lead his band mates to some more ecstatically free movements in their extended improv after Gratkowski's unaccompanied section on alto. Piano and drums simultaneously re-entered, Plimley's lightning-fast two- handed rhythmic blasts transitioning back to a melodic outburst culminating the final set in telepathic sync with Bennink, a frequent occurrence. The way these two conclude each improvised piece is worth the price of admission alone (ok, again it's free, but....), this time a sweet and subtle treble-note run offering memorable closure to another heavyweight battle.

The early evening set at Iron Works comprised a half-Dutch/half-Vancouver ensemble: trumpeter Eric Boeren (trumpet) and countryman Wilbert De Joode (bass) with Canadians Tony Wilson (guitar) and Dylan van der Schyff (drums). Their near hour-long first set featured two large-scale pieces, the first 20 minutes in length, the second over a half-hour. From introductory scratched string instruments and muted trumpet, the quartet allowed plenty of headroom for thematic or at least momentum-driven development on the opener. Wilson's biting lines were intentionally choppy and rough-edged, his hands placed adjacently along his instrument's neck ambidextrously working in conjunction with one another, not confined to necessarily pluck and strum; like a crab with both his arms bent outwards, he rubbed out amplified lines of sonic textures with fingers as well wrists. Colorful peaks and valleys were plentiful throughout this turbulent but ever-musical ride, much in the tradition of Ornette Coleman's classic quartet (guitar obviously subbing for alto) where the "soloist" was actually the only musician not soloing at times. The other three simultaneously offered counterpoint and solos around the one holding down the anchor, which in many cases was the smooth-toned trumpet playing of Boeren. Wilson contributed subtle but effective feedback and high- pitched but not high in volume single notes, while the extended techniques of De Joode's frequent bass-tapping on the body of his instrument and strings and van der Schyff's intended arrhythmic percussive contributions created a sound landscape for the simply-stated, calming brass tones. The musical, many a times atonal, subtleties that ran rampant throughout this first engaging piece continued into the second spontaneously improvised composition, Boeren's upper register horn-playing interchanging seamlessly in tone with De Joode's bowing, van der Schyff's moistened finger rubs along his drum heads and Wilson's upper-frequency explorations. A mesmerizing set of music, utilizing space as much as sound, slowly but naturally came to closure, fading off into the musical horizon and then absolute silence before a unanimous and decisive applause from the pleasantly filled room (most who additionally stayed for the shorter 45-minute second set that featured three, equally rewarding, 10+ minute selections).

The late sets at Iron Works brought back altoist/clarinetist Michael Moore, this time with cellist Peggy Lee and a holdout from the previous set, van der Schyff on drums. Of the drummer's greater assets is his unobtrusiveness, consistently complementing his surroundings without dominating unless given the room to (eg. the occasional drum solo). This element came to play throughout this trio's set, which contrasted to the heavily composed set of Moore's three nights earlier in the same venue. Much to the musical delight of the cellist and drummer, the reedman welcomed less structure, and freer improvising in this surrounding. Moore's clarinet playing resembled Pharoah Sanders, even early Gato Barbieri, had either saxophonist ever picked up a clarinet in their respective careers. As if planned, Lee momentarily lost her bow due to her unrestrained arco playing, then quickly focused on an extraordinary pizzicato passage before retrieving her bow (thanks to Moore's pick- up and hand-off) and re-transitioned back to bowing without any noticeable loss of momentum. A significant portion of the first set was dedicated to a spellbinding duo featuring Moore blowing to the side of his mouthpiece-less clarinet as if it were a flute, while Lee bowed passages as if leading the way, digging out tunnels and caves for Moore to shed light on and explore in further exotic detail.

Day 8

Perhaps the most beautiful, and certainly the sunniest, day yet in Vancouver since VIJF started, this Southern California-like afternoon served ideal for the noontime outdoor performance by locals ShhEnsemble (pronounced "Sean Ensemble," conveniently after nominal leader and bassist Sean Cronin). At the end of the pier-like walkway of Canada Place—the makeshift cruise ship structure (which is permanently "docked" into the ground and houses a hotel, shops and function rooms)—a stage was set up for daily early afternoon VIJF jazz concerts. Cronin, tenor saxophonists Evan Arntzen and Kiyoshi Elkuf (sitting in for the group's other regular saxophonist Steve Kaldestad) along with drummer Jod Poole covered a wide swath of familiar standard material in addition to a few originals.

Two tenor frontline jazz groups certainly have a well-documented history in jazz. Amongst seemingly countless battling tenor combos—Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis/Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons/Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn/Zoot Sims immediately come to mind. But less common are such groups with a two-tenor frontline sans piano as such was the case here. The young, but strong saxophonists Arntzen and Elkuf didn't do much battling per se, but they did come up with some exquisite team effort harmonies, heard no better than during their rendition of Lennie Tristano's "Lennie's Pennies." The two soloed simultaneously around the upbeat theme, intertwining lines and melodically shadowing one another, playing as one. Any piano would have probably watered down the off-the-water proceedings, and so consequently Cronin and Poole successfully maintained a solid underpinning of time the saxophonists, either together or individually, utilized as a foundation through each piece, as was heard on the extended near 15-minute medley which referenced Monk's "Reflections" (his "Evidence" was performed later in the set), Sonny Rollins' "The Freedom Suite" and the Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh standard "On The Sunny Side of the Street" (even though the latter was given a pretty harsh, anything but seamless transition as if a bit too pre-planned).

It was a perfect day, with ideal timing, to take a casual walk from one waterfront to the next, grabbing the Aquabus water taxi near Science World, which took me to Granville Island for Lisa Cay Miller's Q group mid-afternoon performance at Performance Works. The double-dating group (Miller and bassist are an item; as is cellist Lee and drummer van der Schyff) played an even mix of previously recorded and soon to be recorded material. The sound mix was a bit askew with cello and piano far too high in the mix, and a few notches to high in volume, too—ironically this became most prevalent during the quartet's performance of a piece titled "Balance." The set was comprised of intricate compositions, sometimes overly intricate with complex multi-movement sections, Miller with frequent noticeable hand waives to signal a change in tempo or changeover to a new piece within a piece. Arguably a bit over-conceptualized, with musicians understandably glued to their sheet music, the music itself wasn't really given appropriate room to breathe and came off instead a bit on the stiff side. That said, this represented a polar opposite experience to hearing the dynamic of Plimley and Bennink with their incessant rhythmic energy current. Miller, conversely, encouraged space to expand within her music and perhaps with better familiarity of all four musicians with the material, her musical message will be made that much clearer.

With just enough time to hustle over to Studio 700 to catch the Cat Toren Band's first set, I suddenly realized en route from one venue to the next the welcomed preponderance of female acts and musicians programmed into this year's VIJF, whether intentionally or not: from this day's pianists Miller and Toren to flautist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Peggy Lee, violinist Maya Homburger, bassist Jody Proznick and bass clarinetist Lori Freedman (who this correspondent will be hearing later this very evening), amongst many others. Additionally all these who are listed are instrumentalists (vs. vocalists) and leaders in their own right for the most part—so, take note jazz festivals around the world!

Lori Freedman

Toren embellishes otherwise straight-forward lines with youthful exuberance and curiosity while maintaining a strong melodic content in each her originals, most in the 5-10 minute range. With Russell Sholberg (bass) and Daniel Gaucher (drums), the three revealed a strong Brad Mehldau Trio influence while conceptually they seemed to borrow ideas from Maria Schneider's sometimes lush arrangements in this obviously smaller piano trio context. "The Happy Song" was purely a melodic feature with not much to sink your teeth into rhythmically, but as with Miller's show previous it offered a nice alternative to the primarily rhythm-centric featured pianists up to this point. The one non-original was a rendition of Paul Simon's "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," which instrumentally stayed pretty true to the original as basically a jazzed up version with all choruses intact and not much improvisation until almost five minutes in. For a minute the pianist explored the possibilities of improvising around the loosened theme, as she allowed it to momentarily get ahead of her before she would then play in front of it like a game of cat and mouse. Unfortunately it was short lived, though that minute of huge potential revealed to these ears that Toren might be onto something.

Canadians Lori Freedman (Quebecois bass clarinet expert) and Stefan Smulovitz (Vancouverite violinist and laptop specialist) performed a spontaneous duo at Ironworks in the evening, one that was originally scheduled to be a "trio" with vocalist Viviane Houle (also from Vancouver) who fell ill at the last minute and couldn't make the gig. After a water drop opening reminiscent of Pink Floyd's "Echoes" pre-guitar introduction (from the group's Meddle), the duo's electro-acoustic relationship made its best efforts to find common ground as Smulovitz incorporated and basically processed live Freedman's performance to the point that it seemed she was playing with echoes of her former self, a variation of her musical shadow if you will. On clarinet for the second 10+ minute improvisation, Freedman played over an incessant broken car horn sound, before Smulovitz faded out the not so welcoming New York city effect and offered the reed player harmonic parallels to connect and interact with, as if musical bait were being tossed her way rather than the two worlds functioning independently, to this point, of one another. The collaboration seemed to work best when the laptop provided more a bed of sounds and foundation of effects over which Freedman could work rather than compete with. Some effects were a bit over the top, and simply didn't work, particularly in the third improvisation that included everything from a random woman's voice and baby sounds to flatulent and burping noises. However, this improvisational composition's conclusion marked a grand leap in their collaborative effort with alternating space then bass clarinet hysterics with a final pause followed by Smulovitz on laptop completing a momentous cycle. Here he indeed gave good reason for a laptop to be considered an instrument for any doubters. The first set's final (and shortest) piece was arguably the most interesting, Smulovitz playing undiluted acoustic violin (he had picked up the instrument earlier while still sitting at his laptop, doing double duty and "playing" both at that juncture). It's not a duo one hears too often—bass clarinet and violin—but the two proved there are certainly endless possibilities without plugging anything in.

For a total change of pace, the mid-50 year old modern Swing-based tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton appeared as a special guest and co-leader during The Cellar's VIJF concert series with veteran guitarist Oliver Gannon's quartet (with pianist Miles Black, bassist Jodi Proznick and drummer Blaine Wikjord). Splitting his time between homes in Italy and Florida, this was certainly a rare trip up to the Northwest Coast and two nights of sold out crowds (two sets a night) served as a grand welcoming for the veteran Ben Webster-influenced saxophonist who began making his mark in the mid '70s after moving to New York from his home in Providence, Rhode Island. He admitted he'd been in planes basically for the last 38 hours, which excused a bit of the lackadaisicalness but fine and relaxed humor emanating from the stage as between tune banter. Standards and keys were of course discussed literally moments before Hamilton would jump right in on a tune's head, from "Three Little Words" to "When Your Lover Has Gone" (which Hamilton comically re-titled "When Your Liver Has Gone" as Hamilton was known for his enjoyment of spirits, to put it lightly). The latter featured a tasteful solo by Gannon, a veteran of the Vancouver jazz scene since the early '70s. He, for the most part, comfortably took a back seat to Hamilton but contributed beautiful backing lines, offering appreciative counterpoint to Hamilton's soloing in particular.

The saxophonist shouted instructions without qualms at such a volume to members of the group, unknowingly amusing the audience at times—such as when he cut off Black mid-solo by screaming "Go to the bridge!" The last several tunes of the first night's late set featured saxophonist (and Cellar proprietor) Cory Weeds who this correspondent had heard and reported on earlier in the Festival when he led his own group at the club. Hamilton generously asked Weeds to choose what key he'd like to play "I Thought About You." Weeds nervously replied "Whatever key it's in." (Weeds at set's end when introducing Hamilton admitted to the crowd, "I can't tell you how difficult it is going to the school of Scott Hamilton... I just went!") Weeds, a little less gruff and brighter in tone, admirably held his own, though. They performed "Fine and Dandy" and a blues number, Hamilton seemingly pleased with their respective solos and exchanges, which were well in the tradition of battling tenors. It was a jam session like atmosphere with high caliber talent on stage, Weeds graduating with honors.

From one extreme to the next and back, a return to Iron Works to hear the local Inhabitants group served as an off-kilter nightcap, serving more as encouragement for a second wind given this group's high-octane energy and sheer volume, than actually capping the day's worth of six shows in a milder nearly-time-to-go-to-bed fashion. Featuring JP Carter (trumpet and electronics), David Sikula (guitar), Pete Schmitt (bass) and Skye Brooks (drums), Carter utilized two mics—one acoustic, the other attached to a processing box with switches as well as foot pedal. The exemplary "The Rancher" (from the The Furniture Moves Underneath, 2007) provided a monotonous, grooving beat over which Carter blew a mix of clear, searing and blurred, effected tones from his trumpet into his double mic set up. This was late-night underground Vancouver at its finest, original sounds emanating from Carter's usage but not exploitation of technology in this case. The group's new album, A Vacant Lot (Drip Audio, 2010) should garner loads of deserved attention for this local favorite that enjoyed a packed house, even for the late set which ended around 2am.

Day 9

The penultimate day of the VIJF was actually this correspondent's last before heading back to New York early in the evening. The Roundhouse served as a jazz festival within the festival, housing workshops and overlapping performances at several stages and classrooms, with fans rushing to and from one event and the next. As mentioned earlier in this report, the workshops turned in some of VIJF's most memorable events, though unfortunately they were also the most poorly attended. Perhaps in the future they could seem less clinical in title at least, as they were perceived by most to only be tailored to and intended for musicians? Though a lengthier suggestion, "solo concert/open workshop/lecture and demonstration" more adequately describes what transpires within four walls for these hour-long workshops.

The first of many workshops at the Studio this day was by multi-reedman Frank Gratkowski (vibraphonist Chris Dingman, trumpeter Nate Wooley and bass clarinetist Freedman would also host workshops later in the day) and served very enlightening for musicians and non-musicians alike in attendance. Beginning with a solo performance on alto sax, he showcased his obviously time-tested mastery of the instrument utilizing a surplus of extended techniques from circular breathing, double-tonguing, multiphonics, microtonal playing and simultaneous playing and singing, to baritone-toning the alto by miraculously replicating the pitches of its deeper family member's range (one of the few solo improvisations he played based around actual time would be an awe-inspiring rendition of trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff's "Hot Hut," also on alto and again featuring many of the above techniques). Gratkowski, a well-proven master of the art of solo performance, spoke at length not only about his two released solo CD projects (one sadly already out of print), but also shared insights at what made him become such a great solo player. "I must say I've already forgotten how I started that improvisation," he admitted after playing the unaccompanied alto feature. Short-term memory in essence has helped him, ironically enough, and he enjoys being an improviser that much more since he forgets so easily what he's played. By performing in the moment—he winds up not playing licks over and over.

On one of his first ever solo concerts, he revealed that he ran out of ideas after just 10 minutes, so he thereafter practiced with the mission to play a straight two hours with no one behind him and, even more difficult, without repeating himself—but most importantly he wanted to make sure he was not going to sound like any of his idols who were and are known to play solo: Steve Lacy (who he briefly studied with and is one of the primary reasons he no longer plays soprano!), Anthony Braxton or Evan Parker. The only reed specialist at VIJF, at least to my recollection, who not only brought more than two horns, Gratkowski was sure he gave his instruments a workout with an approximate 5-minute solo feature each, from alto to bass clarinet, back to alto, then clarinet. This solo performance, with the added bonus of questions and answers with personal insight, was undoubtedly one of VIJF's 2010 better moments.

Already in process, the BC (guitarist Bill Coon's) Double Quartet set featuring trumpeter/flugelhornist Brad Turner was literally out the door and down a hallway to the open-aired back of the expansive Festival Hall. Coon composed for guitar, Turner, a string quartet (two violins, viola and cello), bass and drums. The lush low- key affair was making my last day in Vancouver, a Saturday, feel more like a Sunday, with rare exception. Interestingly enough, the set closer was appropriately titled "Sunday Morning," re-enforcing the above comment. Turner shares a somewhat similar approach to trumpet as with flugelhorn, neither on which he reaches overtly brassy heights, both of which he plays with a distinctively warm tone.

And yet to another, albeit more familiar, performance space under the Roundhouse roof (which now began resembling more a labyrinth of stages!)—the venue's Performance Centre, at which there have been many shows covered extensively in this report since the inaugural days of this year's VIJF. The first-time meeting of the leaderless collective featuring reedman Gratkowski with New York-based trumpeter Nate Wooley, bassist Torsten Muller and Canadian now Brooklyn-based drummer Harris Eisenstadt played a near-40 minute group improvisation followed by a four- minute encore.

The memorable set represented a first-time meeting of the horn players (hopefully the first of many more to come given their shared strength of sounds well beyond those associated with their respective instruments); Wooley had performed but once previously with Muller, and the trumpeter is more than familiar with Eisenstadt, both being New Yorkers and frequent enough collaborators. The ensemble's subtle individual movements were their greatest collective strength. The two horn players bounced tones off one another, on occasion harmonically aligning. Wooley (like Gratkowski) displayed his by now well-known extraordinary capacity to acoustically pull off what most any other player would need electronic effects or processing to accomplish. Many listeners may have been looking at his feet just to confirm he wasn't being technologically assisted; the only assistance he utilized —a thin square sheet of aluminum held at the end of his horn's bell, which metallically rattled tones and the trumpeter's breaths to great effect. At the half-way point of the first group improvisation, Gratkowski switched from bass clarinet to alto sax, while Muller and Eisenstadt's immediate connection became ever more apparent. The bassist focused on his arco performance while the drummer stirred up a world of complementary tones from his cymbals. For an extended period of time after the horns joined back in, the connection and association between sound and instrument became blurred entirely. It was almost too much to take for some listeners who tried their best to quietly migrate off to another performance space; but the fact remained—these were otherworldly sounds produced individually and collectively by a mighty foursome, a constellation that hopefully will realign in the not too distant future. Listeners be brave!

Immediately following, in the same performance space, was guitarist Tony Wilson's 5tet with violinist Jesse Zubot, trumpeter JP Carter, bassist Paul Blaney and drummer Skye Brooks. From their opening tune by the late Tom Cora ("Jim") to a Fela Kuti dedication, Wilson's group showed a knack for song development followed by episodes of destruction and redevelopment, though not necessarily in that order. After three minutes of the highly structured "Squirk," the group abruptly went completely atonal, dropping the tune's theme altogether for an experimental bridge sidestep, reconnecting on the other end with the leader stating a 2-note theme off of which Blaney and Carter interspersed bass and trumpet counter statements in response. Similarly with the Fela tribute entitled "For Fela Kuti #2," Wilson's unaccompanied guitar introduction was followed by the tune's theme before a seemingly unrelated free section (Carter's breaths squeaking their way through his mouthpiece, while Zubot's instrument—not strings, mind you—was incessantly bowed and tapped). This was followed again with a return of the theme presented by the leader with Sholbert and Brooks tagging along while the trumpeter and violinist mischievously continued pushing their instruments' limits including—in the case of Carter— electronic manipulations.

Harris Eisenstadt's group Canada Day was awkwardly scheduled and situated two days after its holiday namesake and one day before the States' own version of its Independence Day. Performing in the large open space of the Roundhouse's Festival Hall, drummer Eisenstadt brought with him from New York—Wooley (trumpet), Matt Bauder (tenor sax) and Chris Dingman (vibes), with Vancouver bassist Tommy Babin. Unfortunately I was only able to listen to a glimpse of their set before rushing off to the airport to catch my flight back home. But I can certainly say from previous experiences of hearing this group live in New York (not to mention their highly acclaimed self-entitled Clean Feed disc from a year ago), their set surely did not disappoint and represented but one of innumerable intelligent and daring bookings that the 25th annual VIJF presented for their 2010 edition.

So, here's to the Festival's Golden Anniversary in another 25 years—may it be as strong as it is now, if not stronger! Undoubtedly one of the most open-minded (read: open-eared!) festivals anywhere in the world, Vancouver has become a destination come every June and July for the very reason of hearing not only their city's extraordinary homegrown talent (which there is certainly a plethora of) but also to witness many international musicians and groups who simply don't have any or many other North American stops. Hope to see you in Vancouver next June/July!

Photo Credit

All photos by Laurence Donohue-Greene (except Paul Plimley/Frank Gratkowski/Han Bennink, and Tony Wilson by Chris Cameron)

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