07/30/03

Vancouver International Jazz Festival 2003

Change is inevitable when a festival has run as long as the Vancouver International Jazz Festival, which reached its age of majority with this year's 18th edition.

Coincidentally, 2003 marks the end of DuMaurier's title sponsorship, an unfortunate side effect of new, tough tobacco advertising restrictions in Canada. Though questions remain as to how this 300-plus event, 10-day festival will make the transition, this year's fest supplied some clues.

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Miya Masaoka

The schedule was streamlined in such a way that prevents the audience for a particular style of music from being pulled in two or three different directions once or twice each evening. The addition of a 9 p.m. set at the venerable Western Front (which turned 30 this year) gave folks the ability to linger in the area for dinner after the traditional 5:30 performance, instead of racing across town. This, in tandem with paring the Studio 16 schedule to a single two-set gig starting at 11 p.m., allowed considerably more of the festival's adventurous fare to be easily accessed.

Conversely, this year's festival upgraded a key venue for headliners like Wayne Shorter and John Scofield, as the Vogue Theater's faded vintage charm was replaced by the formal gleam of the Center for the Performing Arts.

Despite these changes, the heart and soul of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival remains the concert series at the Vancouver East Cultural Center, the almost 100-year-old, converted church hall. The Cultch has two things going for it. With a high ceiling, an abundance of wood surfaces and a steeply raked balcony, its congregative design places more of the audience closer to the artists than most comparably sized venues. And even the few obstructed view seats are in a sweet spot, acoustically. It is a space that does justice to a very wide range of musical journeys, be they to jazz's African headwaters or the effluvia of free improvisation.

The Clutch is also the place where Vancouver's own musicians state their arrivals as leaders on the national and international scenes. That was the case this year when tenor saxophonist Jon Bentley presented a set of Kenny Wheeler's music, with the composer-trumpeter augmenting a group featuring two other emergent Vancouver musicians, trumpeter Brad Turner and pianist Chris Gestrin.

Despite the considerable merits of Bentley's program, the real milestone event at the Clutch this year was the debut of drummer Dylan van der Schyff's International Project, with Turner, bassist Mark Helias, pianist Achim Kaufmann and reed player Michael Moore. Van der Schyff has played in many similar projects, and the experience paid off handsomely, as he put together a varied set, spanning a meticulously cadenced chart by Helias to collective improvisations. In topping the bill on opening night, leading a band that was basically on their second set (both Helias and Kaufmann had played in Moore's White Widow project), and coming on after Han Bennink, Van der Schyff showed up huge for a crucial, overdue statement.

The other Vancouver-specific festival tradition ensconced at Clutch is the collaborations initiated by NOW Orchestra, who are no longer the well-kept secret they were for too long. Reconvening to perform Lewis' sprawling "Chicken Skin II" and pieces by NOW's artistic codirectors—saxophonist Coat Cooke and guitarist Ron Samworth—it was obvious from the first notes that the collaboration that produced The Shadowgraph Series (Spool), one of the best CDs of 2001, had deepened. Samworth's "Bandwidth 15" opened the proceedings with an emphasis on small groups improvising on different materials simultaneously. Often, flashcard cued pieces can result in stiff contrived music, but Samworth's extensive knowledge of his cohorts' tendencies and his own keen sense of timing resulted in a richly detailed and well-paced piece.

Though Cooke's "Broken Dreams' successfully followed suit to a degree, some of the most emotionally charged music was a more conventional soloist/ensemble passage featuring alto saxophonist Bruce Freedman, who mixed Ornette-ish plaint with Desmond dryness. Still, the ambitions of these works were overshadowed by Lewis' on "Chicken Skin II."

Spanning semilush ensembles, minute improvisations and well-oiled grooves, this episodic work was a veritable compendium of Lewis' orchestral vernacular. Lewis also made his presence felt as a trombonist throughout the NOW program, contributing several impressive statements.

Yet Lewis' abilities as an improviser was put to a more rigorous test in a quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, koto player Miya Masaoka and drummer Hamid Drake. Even though Lewis alternately roared, gurgled and sang with equal cogency, the music was, to a greater extent, shaped by Masaoka's decision not to employ MIDI devices and other electronics, and Drake's to only play traps. As a result, Masaoka's playing was decidedly motivic, while Drake's centered on patterns that threatened to raise the bandstand at any moment. At any given moment, the foursome could flood the Clutch with sound and leave it in near silence the next. Each musician's ability to complement the emerging flow of the music was uncannily spot-on. However, Drake held the high trump card with his ability to instantly infuse the music with heated rhythms: it was one he played sparingly to the benefit of the music, generally, and to Crispell in particular, as it repeatedly summoned the supposedly dormant percussive aspects of her playing

Lewis, Crispell, Masaoka and Drake created a thoroughly mesmerizing 90 minutes of music, which triggered the fastest, most vociferous standing ovation given at the Clutch during the entire 10-day festival. It reinforced the notion that this unassuming hall is one of the planet's power spots for creative music.

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