If it had to be summed up in just two words, this year's du Maurier International Jazz Festival Vancouver would be: rainy and diverse. We had one extreme with the weather that almost never let up in those ten days - hell, it's been unseasonably cold and rainy since, well, last Fall, really. We had two extremes, musically speaking, straight ahead to way out - and everything in between, that festival organizer, the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society, has become most famous for.
CJBS Artistic Director Ken Pickering is praised and criticized for programming a very eclectic line-up that encompasses all that jazz (and other genres) is. Modern day jazz, that is. I suspect that those who balk at Pickering's schedule that puts the cool almost reluctant swing of pianist/vocalist Patricia Barber on a bill with the down home hoe-down of legendary guitarist Bill Frisell still think of jazz strictly as a label for an all-American art form rooted in early 20th century black communities (later pilfered by white men and all gone to hell in a hand basket at this point). Maybe they have a point. Maybe the word jazz has outgrown its meaning and "new music" is a more appropriate term. Or modern jazz. But who would want to go to the "Jazz/New Music/Free Jazz/Blues/Folk/Improv Festival"?
The bottom line has to be the music and, like all art forms, "jazz" - whether some purists like it or not - has always been about taking inspiration from something seen, heard, felt and creating something new from there. As such, jazz has evolved into a wide-ranging genre that is open to interpretation and that is what's beautiful about all forms of music: it's inclusive, you can take what you want from it (and walk away from what you don't). It means what it means to each individual. And I can't think of anyone who doesn't like some kind of music, and Vancouver's annual festival is no different. There were things I didn't like, but plenty more that I did. I surpassed my goal of seeing at least 60 gigs by catching 63 different shows during that rainy 10-day period. And, as usual, the problem now is summing up the wonderful and not-so-wonderful in a thousand (or three) words. A tough assignment. But I'll give it a go.
Peggy Lee Band
One of the most anticipated new groups in recent memory, although calling these all-stars "new" sounds funny, as most of them have played together off and on for years and they're among the top players around. Vancouver cellist Lee's sextet made its debut at the Victoriaville festival just a month before to great reviews, and big surprise as the beauty of Lee's playing always manages to find its way to your heart by way of it always coming directly from hers. She may seem a quiet, shy person without that cello pinned up against her, but when she wraps herself around that instrument, closes her eyes and begins to play, her heart is not merely on her sleeve, but floating all about the room for all to feel. It seems too simple to say that her songs are moving, slow, emotive journeys into softness, with the occasional outburst into anarchy, but there's actually really nothing simple about risking the opening of your heart. Combine her playing and writing with the equally open musicianship of someone like guitarist Tony Wilson, whose haunting moodiness in playing (and in his own writing) always evokes waves of heartbreaking melancholy and you're guaranteed an intense musical experience. Add the sudden turns into crashing, brassy mêlée courtesy a crisp horn section made up of trumpeter Brad Turner, trombonist Jeremy Berkman, fueled by the huge, eager energy of thundering bassist Chris Tarry and the always-up-for-the-journey Dylan van der Schyff and you're way over the top and wishing for the one thing that would make this absolutely perfect to witness: silence, like in a room where people were not coming and going because it's a free concert and, despite its wonderousness, not everyone's 'cup of tea'. But for the fortunate who made the connection, it was great fun watching Lee lead a group, witnessing another facet to her musical personality.
Paul Plimley/William Parker/Gerry Hemingway
Not many could rival pianist Plimley's unbridled joy at making music, but drummer Hemingway was an equally exuberant musical traveling companion for the pianist this night. Actually, exuberant doesn't quite cut it - he was a man possessed, out-of-control, inspired, enraged with absolutely no fear holding him back. Huge talents in their own rights, Plimley and bassist William Parker gamely followed along, but this was the drummer's night; Hemingway was clearly leading this improvisational dance using hands, feet, mouth, and assorted implements to exert his absolute control over the sounds he created on that drum kit. It even seems inappropriate to call him a "drummer" based on this performance. Percussive Powerhouse is more apt after witnessing this intense mouth-gaping, head-shaking assault into brilliance.
Kate Hammett-Vaughan Quartet/Joe Lovano Trio
You know those shows that you come out of and have no words for and can't speak about and are completely lost in your own head or heart or soul (or all of them at once) because it was so moving? This was one of them, although maybe not for the reason you might be thinking. That's right, not Lovano. Hammett-Vaughan's Quartet caught me, hook, line, and sinker and hung me out to dry so that I didn't really even hear Lovano, though I tried in vain to shake it off. I've heard Hammett-Vaughan be "on" before, even sometimes the "on" necessary for gigs where she's straining just to be heard over the sounds of dinner, but the meaning of "on" at this gig was full-on, full-heart, full-personality, deep-from-within Kate that there's no ignoring. And to hear her and her wonderful group in a theater like the Vancouver East Cultural Centre where people are there to listen is how it should be. What a treat. Definitely one of the top three shows of the fest for my heart. Once again, Hammett-Vaughan's dark, twisted take on Duke Ellington/Peggy Lee (not the Vancouver cellist) tune "I'm Gonna Go Fishing was the key, but this night it was less bittersweet sadness and more ballsy control than a rendition I heard a year ago that made me fall in love with the song in the first place. What a wonderful thing to be on hand to witness and be inspired by the changes and growth that accompany life by living in a city filled with such talent. Lovano sailed right by me after that, though, as I say, I tried and broke through a few times to hear the master of his instrument blow non-stop, and whether fast 'n' furious or slow 'n' sweet, I could hear his talent and accomplishment, I just couldn't feel it.
A performance this quietly beautiful by less-able musicians might not have had the ability to hold the hyper down very easily, but these guys unassumingly took charge in a way that we didn't even know that we'd been wrapped around their fingers. Made captive, we became intertwined in their inescapably passionate music until it was over and we realized we'd all fallen completely in love and had been lost in our own little worlds with this gentle, moving music guiding us through our thoughts and personal moments in respectful awe. Pianist Fred Hersch, clarinetist Michael Moore (who has me rethinking a slight aversion to clarinet with just one set), the incredible drummer Gerry Hemingway and can visit Vancouver just any old time. We promise to once again be the quietest, most respectful audience ever (you could actually hear the birds chirping outside in the really quiet parts, of which there were many). Sigh.
A lot of improv was just not reaching me this year. I'll admit I've been in a deep, dark Sarah Vaughan/Chet Baker kinda mood the last while. I couldn't get enough improv at last year's fest, and during November 1998's four-day Time Flies Music Meeting here of 11 improvisers from around the world. Go figure. So, I'd seen much-hyped percussionist Susie Ibarra twice by the time this foursome united, and just hadn't 'gotten it'. This night, I finally got it. She really connected with these three, and the four of them started off loud, crashing and heavy, never letting up for the entire set that left pianist Georg Graewe visibly exhausted, sweaty and looking more than in need of a beer, a shower and an evening nap. This experience, four days into the fest, was exactly what I needed to snap out of it: to be grabbed, pinned to the ceiling and pummeled for an hour by the intensity of four great improvisers finding that rare magic in combining personalities (playing and personal) and that even rarer thing, making it last two whole sets. Second set more quiet, but still with a simmering intensity: tongue flutters and reed kisses from saxist/contrabassist von Bergen; flying, fluttering air brushes from Susie Ibarra; Graewe slightly refreshed and tinkling off in his own world almost silently; Parker has such a presence and yet somehow can almost seem invisible through relentless incessance that can put the listener in a trance-like state thus making everything disappear when concentrating solely on him. All witnessed from the front row, making it one of the most intense experiences in recent memory. Whew. As a side note, one thing I find interesting is the fact that Ibarra was the sole watcher in this grouping. The men had their eyes closed the whole time they were playing and Ibarra took it all in, feeding off them. Reminded me of how Peggy Lee is very observing of the players around her - looking to take the connection one step further? Ensure the link? Is it a female thing? This one's gonna require more investigating, to be sure. (I may have to move to New York to find out.)
Brad Turner Quartet
Oh, the disappointment that this talented foursome had but one gig this fest (never mind that the players all had umpteen other gigs with other groups all over town, it's still not The Quartet). Turner's quartet has it all: catchy, swinging straight ahead (if I must label them) tunes; fantastically talented young players (versatile and everywhere drummer Dylan van der Schyff - his versatility puts him much in demand, I think he had well over a dozen gigs this fest, including with Dave Douglas), gnarled-fingered beauty from pianist Bruno Hubert, a strong heavy groove out of bassist André Lachance, not to mention Turner's considerable prowess on the fabulous trumpet, his first instrument of choice - he also plays drums and piano with great skill. So, needless to say, a smokin' albeit brief set of new tunes including the gorgeous lullaby "Small and Asleep" that Turner penned for van der Schyff's infant son Dexter which Turner introduced as maybe not being quite so apt a title anymore as the wee one was apparently at that moment 'neither small nor anywhere near asleep'. I was aching to hear "The Low Road" off their '98 release "There and Back", but enjoyed taking in some new material that I know I will grow to love by attending their every-other-weekly gigs at the Mojo Room.
Saft/Vu Ragged Jack
Ah, New York City. Never been there, but these guys are one more reason on that massive list making me ache to go (like anyone would ever need any more reasons). Was instantly mesmerized by Cuong Vu's hypnotic, echoey trumpet tones streaming smoothly, consistently out through effects pedals. Almost scary to consider how much practice time and noodling goes into getting THAT acquainted with your instrument and the possibilities of what you can do with a few toys. Funky, groove-oriented poppy jazz hooked me in immediately at their free outdoor show in Gastown so much so that I simply HAD to spend $15 on a cab across town to get from one show to their only other festival performance. First set there marred by technical difficulties including excessive feedback from Vu's monitor and a damaged drum that Ben Perowsky had to change mid-set - big surprise that guy, who I once heard described as a football player at the drums, could pound the hell out of a drum enough to need a replacement. But lest anyone think he's a one-trick pony, think again: he can go way hard and bring it all down to a gentle rumble - it's all about control, baby!
Chris Gestrin Trio
A rare performance from this relatively new group containing three of my favorites from among the busiest Vancouverites: pianist Gestrin, bassist André Lachance, and drummer Dylan van der Schyff. I've got a sneaking suspicion that the rarity of their shows will not be an issue shortly as the trio is preparing not one, but two CDs (good session, I hear) for release shortly. This was a low-key casual kinda show with the trio winging its way through standards and originals for two sets that had me longing for the discs already. It's a little hard to imagine that a group lead by Gestrin, whose touch at the piano is often so delicate you have to strain to hear him (but you do strain to hear him) could be anything but gently beautiful. But I'm seeing signs that he's got more and more tricks up his sleeve. Good. Some of them came with the trio throwing a few twists into standards like a way up-tempo swinging mid-section in "Someday My Prince Will Come"; Lachance slipped into a bass solo echoing the melody of the tune that Gestrin then followed, dancing around the bassist while van der Schyff ting-ting-tinged away behind it all, helping Gestrin guide the whole thing into a little Latin-rhythmed jaunt for a couple of bars. Sweet. The key elements here are fun and communication - with the two obviously intertwined and dependent upon each other for success. It was on tunes like their original "3:30-3:36" and Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" that Gestrin's Dr. Jekyll came out to play. The former, a sleepy eye-opener insomniacs could relate to created a mood of unsettled solitary disturbance - you know, the one where you want to scream because it's so quietly the middle of the night? Can't think of a better soundtrack to that then Gestrin's piano discord and off-kilter string plucks over van der Schyff's rattles and soft brushings alongside Lachance's strummings. The latter tune just plain ol' cooked from beginning to end, with the ol' Gestrin verve, lifting and practically escorting the music right off the page with typical elegance and spirited phrasing.
Saddled with an outdoor concert that was in a virtual wind tunnel under ominously threatening clouds next to a shopping mall with patrons crossing back and forth in front of the stage carrying trays loaded with food didn't dampen the spirit and fire of this talented three (maybe just the freezing cold, soggy audience that was there to actually hear the music). I'd have been thrilled to have heard them in the Vancouver East Cultural Centre where they could get the listening audience they deserve, or even a midnight show at late-night hang Studio 16. And, really, I'm grateful to hear them anytime, but this was a tough situation and I commend these guys for getting as into it as they did. Anyway, enough griping - great band, excellent album (see review elsewhere in this site and buy it), good show, strange venue. See 'em soon (I hope) at the Sugar Refinery, sorta their home club.
Lori Freedman Quartet (Dylan van der Schyff, Joe Williamson, Ron Samworth)
An afternoon of wicked, surprising, energetic, full-bodied improv that if it were a machine, had all the appearance of being a shiny, modern, well-maintained unit on the outside, but inside was a good old-fashioned clock tower filled with the blap blonk jaaap skwonk clangggg! of a million parts in motion, stopping, starting, looping, picking up, dropping off, dropping out - but never, ever losing the momentum, just building, growing, expanding on the big picture of making the whole thing go forward. Nice ride. Thanks!
Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra Tribute to Duke Ellington
This was sweet and informative and fun, with a heart-swelling trumpet solo from ex-Ellington Orchestra trumpeter Joe Williams, but ultimately passionless so by the time I'd ducked out across the street for a peek at Kurt Elling, my soul wasn't in it to return for set two. Opted instead for more of...
Having heard only selected tracks of Elling's radio-friendliest, I was sitting on the big curiosity fence on this one, unsure if I was going straight into the fromage section of the great supermarket of jazz or going to get the whole smorgasbord complete with the roast beast, bread, wine and fruit. Pleased to say Elling's banquet is substantial and plentiful indeed, the full deal served up on a silver platter with great presentation. That man is smooth, smooth, smooth - I wonder if Sinatra, Martin, Davis and Lawford knew they were missing a rat-packer back in the '60s when Elling was just a twinkle in his parents' eyes? Took me aback a bit at first with his seeming over-the-top delivery, personality, appearance, voice, presence - you know, everything, all at once. Wickedly huge pipes that can croon, scat, sing straight, fly sweetly high, go down sexy low - and he is lord and master over it all, including us by set's end. Elling spent about 45 minutes in the lobby of the theater signing CDs and chatting, keeping people from ex-Vancouverite Renee Rosnes' set going on in the theater after his, and wooing and winning them over with a personal flair that'll undoubtedly see this specimen of that rare creature known as the male jazz vocalist go very far indeed. Yes, I'll be watching.
After improv-ing (as in 'free jazz', right?) my way almost to mental shutdown, I needed a fix, something I knew, I loved, and that would soothe my weary being. Crash was just the ticket to a jazzy funked-up night in a little out-of-the-way (to say the least) room that I thank the music gods for. The energy and always upbeat spirit picked me right up and I knew immediately I'd found sanctuary to save my musical soul. Sitting in on keyboards was Panos Grames, who provided a new-blood injection into the proceedings, giving that slightly edgy feeling of 'uh oh, gotta pull off tunes I don't know' and boy, did he - cool to watch it from the best seat in the house. Nice groove, buddy.
Flowers For Albert
One of several non-fest shows I caught, and one of the most special (and not just because the film in my camera got screwed up and the pictures are lost forever, unless you count the ones I have in my heart). Tony Wilson practically steps into another world when he straps on that guitar and joins his carefully chosen musical friends on stage, and there was a lot of soul in the little "after-hours" room known as Woom Shakti this night for the group's tribute to the beautifully wrenching assault known as the music of Albert Ayler. Two sets of drums (yes, two drummers attacking them); two bassists (buzzing king bee Paul Blaney and sneak attack thumper Clyde Reed); saxophonist Coat Cooke on fire this night, and Wilson - a powerhouse unit of the city's established talent in a little hole-in-the-wall room that I just know we'll all be looking back on someday going, 'Remember when we hung out on Friday nights and heard so-and-so and so-and-so... man, those were the days'. It's got that magic about it cause it's not an official business, (it's not a business of any kind, really, more a 'space' being run by a couple of young guys who are into the music and use it for other artistic pursuits on the off-jazz nights) - it's completely and solely about music and these players know they are free to play their hearts' desires for the crowd, big or often small, but they get to do it their way, and that's a rarity 'round here these days.
FINALLY got to see this hybrid of hotstuff players from Vancouver (Brad Turner trumpet/keyboards in this unit; and Chris Tarry on bass); Toronto (saxophonist Mike Murley); and New York (drummer Ian Froman), who get themselves together when they can to record discs, do a few shows and win a few national music awards here and there, you know. And what a performance to catch them at, though rumor has it their shows always smoke. And in the Starfish Room, no less, a downtown club normally reserved for rock shows - which suited Metalwood's brash funky jazz fusion just fine - and because they were so fabulous this night, had to run out to catch them again at the Mojo Room, in an intimate club out of the way where homeboy hero Turner hosts an alternating weekly trio and/or quartet. Big energy, big sound, big fun - the band was pretty much rockin' out and the crowd - average age about 20, I'd guess - was on the floor dancing, grooving and clamoring toward the stage as if it were a rock concert. Total blast.
Dave Douglas' Charms of the Night Sky
This was the only jazz show I've ever seen at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre that had a guy scalping tickets. Unbelievably beautifully warm, intimate performance, the kind that bypasses the ears and goes straight to the heart. Words cannot convey how moving this show was - especially considering their album was lost on me. I'd just heard sad, slow melancholy, not the spirited passion and hope I heard, saw and felt live, in the flesh. Douglas said that Vancouver was a special place for him, and it seems to me that this explanation wasn't necessary (though appreciated, no doubt) because we felt it. I don't think it escaped anyone in the room this night. Now, where's that album...