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.
The fact that Vancouver, a city of only 546,000 people, can support and sustain an organization as vibrant and vital as the NOW Orchestra says something about the cultural priorities of the locals. Under the direction of saxophonist Coat Cooke, the 12-piece orchestra performed with special guest Marilyn Crispell, whose composition "Yin Yang was marked by quiet shimmering textures, muted drums, pointillist punctuation and a strong tenor statement from the leader. Guitarist Ron Samworth's "M.C. featured a long, slow crescendo, an exhilarating piano drum duet, and an exotic wordless vocal by vocalist Kate Hammet-Vaughan. Cooke's "West Side Stomp effectively incorporated excerpts from war news spoken by orchestra members backed by skittering piano. The set and the evening ended with Samworth's wild, skronky guitar work on "Pola.
Next day began with a long, head-clearing walk along the water and through nearby Stanley Park. I couldn't resist the temptation to visit the Vancouver Aquarium, where the fish-eating anemone and the dancing spotted garden eels reminded me of the shapes, colors and movements of the music heard the night before. Back to the Cultch for a solo clarinet and bass clarinet recital by Lori Freedman. It was an interesting exercise trying to guess where the compositions ended and the improvisations began, as she tended to work a phrase, invert, and then examine it from different angles. At one point she used split tones to sound like a guitar amp with a ground problem. At another, her expressive vibrato evoked echoes of Eastern Europe. Her most visually interesting piece required her to dissemble her instrument, put her mouthpiece on the clarinet's bottom part and play using her left hand as a mute while exploring the upper register. After a quick break, Orkestrova emerged to perform their electric homage to Coltrane's landmark recording Ascension. The band built to a mighty roar with several climaxes from Rova's four saxophones, and guitarist Nels Cline took it into the gone-osphere using effects, touch pad, samples and some zany processing gear, with transcendent contributions from cellist Peggy Lee, violinists Jesse Zubot and Ronit Kirchman, keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and drummer Scott Amendola. Nice to see Zu's young drummer checking out Amendola.
A quick ride over to the Commodore Ballroom to catch part of the set by Senegalese singer and songwriter Baaba Maal. Upon entering it sounded like Maal had gone all coffee shop mellow, playing acoustic guitar and singing a lilting ballad. He still possesses the distinctive high, piercing tenor, but it wasn't until the rest of the band came out that things took off with talking drums, irresistible call and response refrains, and a hypnotically repeated harmonic progression that stirred the 1,000 or so people in the audience to start dancing. At one point while leaning against a pillar, it was possible to feel the whole building vibrating.
The night ended at an intimate, 130-seat, wedge-shaped club on the edge of Gastown called Ironworks, which hosted the Swedish-Norwegian trio The Thing. Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love came on stage in their matching Ruby's BBQ t-shirts and launched into a furious torrent of sound with Mats on a white plastic alto. Even at their most chaotic the trio listens carefully, enabling them to stop on a Canadian nickel, change course and throw down an avant, cubist groove. During the break, the audience checked out Klavier Nonette, an art installation by Trimpin consisting of coin operated toy pianos playing music composed by students at the Vancouver Creative Music Institute.
A walk through various neighborhoods, then over to the CBC Studios to catch Michael Bates and his group Outside Sources in a free lunchtime performance recorded for later broadcast. The quartet, with Quinsin Nashoff, saxophone; Russ Johnson, trumpet and Mark Timmermans, drums played original music rumbling in and out of tempos, often with intertwined horn solos. "Charcoal was playful, with four-note motifs and little classical ornaments, and "On Equilibrium used wide intervals, alternating skittish phrases with legato passages.
After lunch the sax quartet Rova performed at The Western Front, a 120-seat rectangular room inside a steamy, artist-run production and performance center in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. One piece, "Radar, found Larry Ochs on soprano with the group responding to a system of hand-cues. In between blocks of sound, Steve Adams recited text excerpts from the "Findings column in Harpers magazine; one excerpt about global warming, another about a chicken that underwent a spontaneous sex change, and a third about a man who shot himself in the head twelve times with a nail gun. These observations were appropriately accompanied by saxophone squawks and swirling clouds of sound. The most overt jazz piece was "Cuernavacus Starlight, with baritone solo from Jon Raskin. Most conceptual was the encore; a "self-composed piece titled "Mushroom, which utilized a graphic score with pictures of various fungi.
That night back at the Cultch, drummer Dylan van der Schyff began by stirring brushes on a snare. Bassist Mark Helias entered with a singing arco solo and started walking underneath Marilyn Crispell's rhapsodic variations. This is a trio capable of playing the thorniest improvisations, yet many of their melodies and harmonies were consonant, flowing and achingly beautiful. A highlight was the joyful South African song "Round We Are Going.
As tempting as it was to stay and hear Helias's sextet, the lure of Bobby Hutcherson at the Center was too strong. Playing both vibes and marimba, Hutcherson fronted a tightly knit quartet with drummer Eddie Marshall, bassist Dwayne Burno and home-girl Renee Rosnes on piano. The last few tunes of their set included a modal bossa, an up tempo waltz, and a gorgeous 4-mallet solo arrangement of "I'll Be Seeing You, accompanied only by the creaking pedal of his vibes. His encore of "Embraceable You was tender, all-too-brief, perfect.
The CBC radio studio was packed the next afternoon for a set by guitarist Bill Coon and his quartet. All good players, they were done in by the p.a. in the room, which made the rhythm section sound unduly heavy. Curious about the free workshops over at the Tom Lee Music Hall, I walked over and sat in on what turned out to be an enlightening session with clarinetist Phil Nimmons and pianist David Braid, who both teach at University of Toronto. They've been playing totally free concerts together for several years now and they spoke about the mystery of spontaneity and why they do what they do. It was fascinating to hear them discuss what freedom means in musical terms and how they teach young musicians to get over self-intimidation. They played intriguing duets to illustrate certain challenges. At 83, Nimmons has forged a distinguished career as a composer, bandleader and player, and since he was born around Vancouver, he reminisced about his early days knocking around town. It was interesting also to see how both Nimmons and Braid engaged many of the younger musicians in the audience. Braid is thoughtful in his replies. Nimmons too, but he has a sly, impish sense of humor that puts people at ease. It's a quality that also comes through in his music. Hopefully this workshop was recorded; it was fun, insightful and inspiring.
There was just enough time afterwards to jump on the bus to Granville Island and catch saxophonist Coat Cooke with his trio at Performance Works. Cooke was impressive leading the NOW Orchestra, but even more so in this totally improvised setting. While he might dress like a banker in suit and tie, Cooke isn't remotely conservative in his playing, either on tenor saxophone or flute. It's clear that he and bassist Clyde Reed have worked together for a long time. Their musical conversation was adventurous and highly intuitive, and it didn't hurt to have their drummer Kenton Loewen bring out the colors in his trap set, utilizing dynamic contrasts as well as an agogo bell covered with towel.
After a quick sushi fix I high-tailed it to The Center to catch the opening act of guitarist Gordon Grdina with bassist Gary Peacock and Dylan van der Schyff. It was a bit of a yawn, though there were nice moments, such as the second piece, which was played with rubato, open tempo and unresolved tension until the final note. When Grdina picked up the oud I kept hoping van der Schyff would whip out a dumbek. Instead it sounded like ersatz world music.
Afterwards, the choice was to stick around for Mike Stern's band or head over the Cultch for the Belmondo Brothers and Yusef Lateef. No contest. The 85-year old Lateef is one of my earliest jazz heroes and he still has an identifiable, compelling sound on flute and tenor, though he plays much shorter lines and phrases than on his classic Atlantic, Impulse and Prestige recordings. The Paris-based Belmondo Brothers-trumpeter Stephane and saxophonist Lionel-fashioned modal, occasionally exotic settings that brought out the best in Lateef. On both flutes and saxophone, Lateef's warm sound and wide vibrato blended especially well with the flugelhorn and bass trumpet. Fortunately, this set was more about spirit and mood than burning solos or virtuosity. Hopefully, the National Endowment for the Arts will consider Lateef when selecting their next round of Jazz Masters.
Still game, I walked over to Rime, a small Turkish restaurant and performance space to hear cellist Peggy Lee, saxophonist John Bentley and guitarist Tony Wilson play a set of improvised music. There were shifting, and at times surprising contrasts, including one piece where the cello and guitar were playing busy, scratchy bits of business while the alto blew long notes gliding above the fray. Then, as if on cue, they leaped into an angular tune together. Lee's arco solos employed extended harmonies with double and triple stops, and out of nowhere the guitarist scraped a metal bar across his strings.
Another afternoon at CBC to see trumpeter Bria Skonberg front a quintet playing more traditional swing and early jazz tunes. Skonberg is a recent graduate of the Capilano College Jazz Studies program, and she's also the winner of the 2006 Prix J.A.M. Award, so after receiving her check it was funny to hear her quote "We're In The Money while trading 4's in her first tune. Skonberg obviously listens to Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge, as she often ends her phrases with a little shake reminiscent of the pre-bop giants. Nothing heavy or deep about this group, but they were fun to watch and listen to, especially the pianist Amanda Tosoft and bassist Georgia Korba who moves, you could say dances with her bass while locking into the groove. Their "Potato Head Blues was lively and the stop-time breaks just right. Skonberg is not only a promising trumpeter but also a poised singer and entertainer, and with experience she'll iron out some of her vocal intonation problems. These young musicians are worth keeping an eye on.
I had looked forward to the afternoon workshop by Cuban pianist Hilario Durán but he just droned on and on. It was good information but, unlike Nimmons and Braid, he made no attempt to acknowledge much less reach out to the young musicians there. He just talked for long stretches then asked if anyone had a question, and so on. Best parts came when he demonstrated montuno and son montuno, the cinquillo pattern in the contradanza, cha cha cha and various tumbaos. Durán's musical illustrations included his dazzling version of Chucho Valdes's "Mambo Influenciado. Interestingly, when talking with him afterwards he refused to acknowledge the role of Orestes Lopez and his brother Cachao in the creation of the mambo.
Back to Granville Island for Chris Gestrin's Trio, with bassist André Lachance and the ubiquitous Dylan van der Schyff. Nice, pleasant, introspective songs-sort of mood music for a rainy afternoon. But since it was clear sky and sunshine, I sat out on the grass and listened to the birds singing along with the trio.
Made it to The Center just in time to catch the end of an opening set by bassist Roberto Occhipinti, backed by Hilario Durán, saxophonist Phil Dwyer, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and the phenomenal Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto, who kicked off the final tune with a jaw-dropping, polyrhythmic solo. They were followed by Paquito d'Rivera's quintet, which opened with a passionate, soaring arrangement of Astor Piazzolla's "Libertango.
With time running short, I raced over to Ironworks for the conclusion of the Zanussi Five, led by Norwegian bassist-composer Per Zanussi. The genre-bending quintet featured a rip-snorting sax section, including three sopranos ducking, dodging and landing knockout punches. Their first encore was a 1960s, psychedelic romp based around a demented James Brown riff. Their second encore: a mind-blowing, frenetic klezmer song. One of the saxophonists in the group, Kjetil Møster played the late show with his own trio, joining forces with Per Zannusi and Swedish drummer Kjell Nordeson. It was a bracing, fire-breathing, mostly free-jazz show with the leader displaying a big sound, wide range, and scary vibrato, alternating between long runs and fluttering sounds. Zanussi used his entire instrument, employing harmonics, plucking below the bridge, even changing tuning during a piece. Nordeson was propulsive and at times explosive, occasionally playing with mallets on tiny bongos and cymbals perched on top of his snare. The set ended with a long decrescendo into the early morning hour.
Back to the festival hotel to find the jam session in full swing, with saxophonist Phil Dwyer and drummer Dafnis Prieto from Roberto Occhipinti's group sitting in with pianist Alon Yavnai from Paquito's quintet. They were obviously having fun, taking all sorts of chances, playing for the sheer joy of it. Dwyer was killing on "Song For My Father, and Yavnai displaced time and played polytonally, but couldn't throw off his cohorts. The saxophonist from the Cuban group Maraca sat in and played long Brecker-like lines. At the end, Yavnai and Prieto launched into a montuno that brought the musician-heavy house down. ¡Qué sabroso!