Now in its 16th year, the Vancouver International Jazz Festival is well established as one of the West's premium music forums and one of the finest international music showcases in the world. For ten days, the VIJF offers the sights and sounds of the music's edge pushers, mainstayers and international ambassadors in a panoramic city sweep that keeps the focus on the music amid the vitality of Canada's West Coast urban cultural Mecca.
That's as it should be. Yet in a city as stunning as Vancouver, the surroundings can't help but influence the music. Festival Artistic Director Ken Pickering considers this in mixing and matching his musicians and venues. From the make shift, open air stages of Granville Island to the edgy vaudevillian theaters on Granville Street, the venerable Venables Street space in Vancouver East to little Studio 16 in Vancouver West, the stages fit the music like a needle does the record. Free festival offerings in the Gastown District, along the water at the Roundhouse or on Granville Island offer some of the best cheap thrills anywhere.
But, of course, it's who occupies the stage that matters. This year's line up is as always heavy on nationalism (no accident that the fest spans Canada Day) and it offers a clear snapshot of the pervasive border crossing influence of jazz. Vancouver is home to some of improvised music's finest players. Musical citizens Paul Plimley, Tony Wilson, Dylan van der Schyff and Francois Houle become free agents throughout the fest appearing in a hodge-podge of settings and musical line-ups. Canadian veterans like Kenny Werner and Vancouver's resident New Music Big Band the NOW Orchestra are featured prominently. Youthful bands like Vancouver B3 master Chris Gestrin's Organ by Donation and Toronto's The New Deal and Michael Occhipinti's Creation Dream show that jazz hasn't suffered the death that Ken Burns so foolishly alleged.
It's the Southerners who bring the star power. From Stateside come some of the biggest names in American jazz. The Vogue Theater welcomes most of these: swing string man and crooner John Pizzarelli holds forth on 24 June; trumpeters Roy Hargrove (27th) and Terence Blanchard (28th) play back to back; and poster boy Joshua Redman brings his soulful sax fury on the 29th. But perhaps the most anticipated performance will be last year's jazz critics' darling Dave Douglas who brings his New Quintet in on the 30th (with new saxophonist Yosvany Terry). Outgoing Douglas sax man Chris Potter will open the show with his Quintet.
The Commodore Ballroom hones closely to the groove with headliners like John Scofield (25th), the Texas swing of Clarence Gatemouth Brown and Nawluns jump of Marcia Ball (28th), and NYC downtown scenesters Sex Mob with Seattle's Zony Mash and ex-John McLaughlin sideman Trilok Gurtu (30th). Post-modern saxophone colossus Ellery Eskelin brings his trio collective with accordionist Andrea Parkins and percussion dervish Jim Black to Studio 16 (30th) and then in an opening stint with the saxophone-guitar pairing of Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel at Vancouver East (1st). Leftist jazz's elder statesman Steve Lacy brings his Quintet (with AACM trombonist George Lewis) to the Vancouver East on 22 June. The brilliant American pianist Marilyn Crispell and legendary bassist Barre Phillips are return visitors.
The European wing of new music is well featured as always. Opening the festival guide is like opening a Baedeker's - all of musical Europe is at your fingertips. London is featured through a six-show weeklong residency by premier new music bassist and composer Barry Guy. Guy's New Orchestra is a virtual musical European Union with fellow Brit guitar phenom Evan Parker, Swiss reedman Hans Koch, Sweden sax man Mats Gustafsson, German trombonist Johannes Bauer and others forming the quorum. Guy then flip-flops the leadership chores and becomes a sideman to his sidemen in a series of spoke and wheel sit-ins that are staples of the VIJF formula.
Londoners John Butcher and DJ Gilles Peterson are here as well. Clarinetist Louis Sclavis is considered possibly France's most important jazz export since Django Renihardt and he'll mix it up with Douglas, Phillips and van der Schyff. Paris-based keyboardist Benoit Delbecq brings his "5". Pierre Dorge brings his Danish New Jungle Orchestra for an exotic Big Band kick (23rd).
Four-time Downbeat percussion winner Trilok Gurtu brings his latest jazz-Indian hybrid project to the Commodore on the 30th. Other internationalists include Asians Jin Hi Kim, who plays the komungo (or Korean zither), and Japanese free guitarist Taku Sugimoto. Globetrotters like the Guinean transplant guitarist Alpha YaYa Diallo and Zap Mama's Sally Nyolo represent the improvisational genus of Africa. The Commodore hosts the Israeli-Ghanaian collective Ex-Centric Sound System on the 22nd and a double bill on the 23rd of Cuban Buena Vista star Barbarito Torres and Marcio Faraco, a fine singer in Brazilian's burgeoning New Wave. Meanwhile, globalization is apparent in Vancouver's Orchid Ensemble with its erhu-zheng-marimba-saxophone configuration. The UN style trio of Seattleite Amy Denio on accordion, Russian balaika master Misha Feigin and Japanese percussionist Toshi Makihara could be the festival's poster children.
Finally, if you're not sure if you like this jazz stuff, the VIJF gives you the chance to dip your toe in to test the water. Just because the Gastown, Roundhouse, Granville Island and Performance Works stages are free doesn't mean they're light on talent. Forty five minute sets by free pioneers like London's John Butcher, Norway's Frode Gjerstad and Poland's Mariusz Kwiatkowski reveal the global reach of the music and could provide festival highlights. A case in point was last year's mid afternoon meeting of Chicago sax McArthur "genius" Ken Vandermark and Sweden's AALY Trio at the Performance Works. Freebies by Dave Douglas' iconoclastic pianist Uri Caine, Wayne Horvitz's Zony Mash, Louis Sclavis, Tim Berne and Eskelin all promise similar fireworks.
This honestly just states the festival's theme and includes little of the improvisation that accompanies it. If you're anywhere from San Francisco to Seattle (in other words, adventurous driving range), your bag should be packed. If air is required, there's a low fare price war going on. What better way to start your summer? Free your music and the rest will follow.