The TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival
June 23-July 2, 2006
Why do so many musicians rave about playing the Vancouver International Jazz Festival? It seems to start with a knowledgeable local audience that supports creative music, and it's reinforced by the festival's aesthetic vision, balancing big-name mainstream acts with more adventurous improvising artists. The successful formula includes a cross-section of different styles and nationalities, for example this year's spotlight on Nordic musicians. It also helps that Vancouver has a deep pool of good local players for visiting musicians and composers to collaborate with, not to mention a number of comfortable venues, both large and small, with in-tune pianos and good sound. And it doesn't hurt that Vancouver has beautiful weather in late June, with splendid scenery, interesting neighborhoods and good local cuisine to enjoy during down time.
This year's festival drew more than 500,000 people, nearly matching the population of the city. With more than 400 shows and 1,800 musicians performing, there's no way to see everything, but I bought a week-long bus pass to get around and hit as many shows as I could. Here are some highlights from the first week:
I arrived in Vancouver just in time to catch Montreal bassist Michel Donato and his European Quintet opening for McCoy Tyner at The Center. Their sound was lyrical, post-bop and tonally based. Repertoire was original, including a dreamy waltz with subtle colors and a blues with a Sidewinder groove, providing a framework for imaginative solos from guitarist Michael Felderbaum, Polish trumpeter Piotr Wajtasik, and two Quebecois players now living in France; drummer Karl Jannuska and saxophonist François Theberge. Might be interesting to hear this group in a smaller club, since the 1,700-seat hall swallowed up their sound.
Having seen the headliner Tyner recently, I opted instead for a show by the Italian hard-core trio Zu at the Vancouver East Cultural Center (aka the "Cultch ), a century old, 350-seat former church in a leafy neighborhood not from the funky clubs, shops and organic food stores along what's known as "The Drive. Zu, joined by special guest saxophonist Mats Gustafsson from Sweden, played their set off the stage and on the floor just a few feet in front of the audience. It was a startlingly loud sonic assault with the two baritone saxophones locking horns, caterwauling over speed metal rhythms. Though this sort of stimulating, free-jazz thrashing is generally enjoyed by punks and the indie-rock kids, there were few in the house. Most in the audience had come for the headliners, the Vancouver-based NOW Orchestra, so those in the first few rows either enjoyed or endured. It's curious that musicians who play this loud don't use any earplugs on stage. Good news, though, for the hearing aid industry.