Review of TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival
June 25-July 4, 2010
There are dozens of jazz festivals across Canada, each with its own identity. Some, like Montreal, are big budget parties attracting jazz tourists from all over the world. Others, such as Guelph and Victoriaville, draw hard-core audiences from academic or noise-oriented circles. But what separates the Vancouver International Jazz Festival from the others is its savvy balance of mainstream, crossover and avant sensibilities. During the week before and after Canada Day, Vancouver’s non-profit Coastal Jazz & Blues Society launched its 25th annual summer jazz festival with another mash-up of creative programming and surprises.
The 1,800-seat Centre For Performing Arts was filled on the festival’s opening night for a double bill of pianists Bill Charlap with Renee Rosnes, and the promising new group James Farm. Rosnes (who grew up in North Vancouver) and Charlap reprised the piano duets from their recent Blue Note release Double Portrait, though their live performance was more engaging than the cd, mostly for the opportunity to see who was playing what. They faced each other across two grand pianos, Rosnes on the left, Charlap on the right, and immediately launched into Frank Loesser’s “Never Will I Marry” (a tongue-in-cheek choice for this couple who married less than 3 years ago). Their four-hand dialog was more conversational than competitive, and a reminder that intensity has nothing to do with volume or tempo. On Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” Rosnes tended to improvise on the harmony, while Charlap concentrated on spinning horn-like melodic variations, but they often switched roles throughout the evening. The emotional highlight of their hour-long performance came during an intuitive and achingly beautiful “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy & Bess.
The cooperative quartet James Farm (Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland) hasn’t released a recording yet, but they’ve already hit the festival circuit. This is a player’s band with a repertoire comprised mostly of sketches rather than full compositions, maximizing the possibilities for improvising with spontaneous time shifts. Redman muscled his way in and out of grooves, and Parks explored with darting solos on top of ostinatos. But it was Harland who knit the various strands together with percussive chatter that poked and prodded his colleagues. As he slyly joked, “we drummers play with a lot of passion, but we’re laid back.”
One of the distinctive things about the Vancouver festival is they’ve always been committed to presenting European artists who rarely get a chance to play in North America, such as Susanna (Wallumrød) and the Magical Orchestra. This peculiar Norwegian duo, with keyboardist Morten Qvenild as the orchestra, boldly covered and recast songs by Prince, Joy Division, Bob Dylan and Rush in a concert on Granville Island. Qvenild’s vintage keyboards provided pulse and texture, while Susanna’s pure, vibrato-less vocal sounded like Miles Davis playing on the steep side of a fjord. As good as the performance was, this was a rare instance of a group that sounds better in the studio, as Susanna’s stark, intimate, singing-in-your-ear-from-beyond-the-grave vocals were made more ordinary by concert amplification and reverb.
There were a number of other European musicians who left their mark on this year’s festival. British saxophonist Evan Parker, for example, made memorable appearances with Alexander von Schlippenbach and Paul Lovens, as well as in a trio with Torsten Müller and Lovens (during which Parker bragged of winning money from bass clarinetist Rudi Mahal on that day’s World Cup Match). With the free-jazz super-group Globe Unity Orchestra, Parker stood with eyes closed, patiently waiting his moment. When the time came he blew jagged lines with increasing ferocity, spurred by the orchestra’s two drummers leading to a cacophonic climax. The 11-piece GUO rarely performs together these days, but after more than 40 years they still produce a complex, beautiful noise.
The opening act for GUO was the shirt-and-tie quintet Mostly Other People Do The Killing, whose set of originals mixed strong, modern swing with deconstructed jazz clichés. Every time they locked into something recognizable or predictable, one of them would subversively undermine it and mischievously knock the train off the track. Trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist Jon Irabagon buzzed around various heads while the rhythm section employed an elastic, push-pull sense of time. Drummer Kevin Shea, well known on the indie rock scene, swung like mad one minute then deliberately began stumbling around his trap set like someone knocking glasses off the bar. Interesting that the only time he seemed to really relax was when playing fast tempos. Their wry sense of humor emerged as lots of inside musical jokes were tossed back and forth on “Round Bottom Square Top,” with a long contrapuntal passage based on the changes of “All The Things You Are.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of this festival is to see out of town improvisers collaborate with local stars. In one free show inside the black box studio inside the CBC, Vancouver clarinetist Francois Houle joined forces with British bassist Barry Guy and Swiss violinist Maya Homburger in an engaging recital of new music having as much to do with contemporary classical music as jazz. Some pieces were through-composed, while others fit into standard forms, though it wasn’t always easy to hear the line between written and improvised sections. Each player worked with extended techniques; at one point Barry beat his strings with a fluffy mallet and Houle blew breathy flute-like sounds and played two clarinets at once. Particularly affecting were the homage’s to artists Max Bill and Alexander Calder.
Every show wasn’t quite so serious, and some of the most amusing moments came during free outdoor concerts in Gastown with Finnish saxophonist Mikko Innanen’s mind-bending expressionist group Innkvisito (featuring Swedish saxophonist Fredrik Ljungkvist). Another concert of grooving surfer jazz by the Danish trio Ibrahim Electric sparked a spontaneous dance party in the streets. Swiss guitarist Christy Doran’s hallucinogenic tribute to Jimi Hendrix undoubtedly triggered some flashbacks, though some in the crowd seemed puzzled by vocalist Erika’s Stucky’s on-stage antics (what was up with her wild bird caws, and what was she doing with that shovel?). They offered up a nice medley of Purple Rain and Purple Haze, though.
When Chick Corea plays solo these days, he often frames it as a tribute to other piano stylists. In his set at the Centre, he nodded to both Bud Powell and Bill Evans early on, and played an elegant “Sophisticated Lady,” followed by a few Monk tunes. Most of his Monk performances were more polished than angular, but “Blue Monk,” worked in a bit of blues and stride, along with some Monkish harmonies and a few of the composer’s descending chromatic runs. Corea cleared the air with Scriabin’s stately “Allegretto #2,” but then ended his set anti-climactically with a series of his slight Children’s Songs. Thankfully, his encore was the most touching piece of the evening; a sublimely tender arrangement of Nelson Cavaquinho’s “Folhas Secas.” Corea has always been into his own world, but based on his stage demeanor and attire that night, he is now even more so.
For one hour, Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer turned The Centre into an old-school rave, mixing trippy, ambient sound with elements of house and electronica, along with drummer Auden Kleive’s tribal beats and big swells of sound from guitarist Stian Westerhus. Most of the middle-aged audience (there to see Bill Frisell) seemed nonplussed by the light show. There were no signs of glow sticks, pacifiers or X.
Bill Frisell emerged after intermission leading his latest trio with violist Eyvind Kang and drummer Rudy Royston. The guitarist was in a mellow, playful mood; indulging in some noodling, pedal effects and repetitive patterns before digging into the diminished scales of Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious Lee.” For the most part though, Frisell focused on classic pieces of Americana, such as “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Keep On The Sunny Side.“ He finished with a soft-shoe, pipe and slipper rendition of “Tea For Two.”
With some 400 concerts in the festival, you have to expect that not every one was stellar. Bassist Hubert Dupont’s set with his group Dupont T turned out to be a snooze. And John Scofield was upstaged by his pianist and vocalist Jon Cleary (though Sco’s intro on Hank Williams’s “Angel of Death” was chilling). Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen has expanded his trio to a quartet, but his limp, slow-motion ballads and tangos were all simmer and no heat. On the other hand, Stanley Clarke’s show with pianist Hiromi was high on energy and free of all subtlety, often given to bombastic, over-the-top excursions by the rhythm section.
There were other, more pleasant surprises throughout the festival, including clarinetist-saxophonist Michael Moore’s late night set of intriguing inside-outside compositions performed by local heroes Chris Gestrin, Andre Lachance, Brad Turner and Dylan van der Schyffe. They were among the only groups at this festival to lock in and explore the sound spectrum of mid-‘60s post-bop vocabulary (with walking bass lines and brushes). Their all-too-short set concluded with a charming piece of kinder jazz, built upon major triads.
Dutch drummer Han Bennink appeared in various contexts throughout the festival, but the most revealing was a workshop he gave at a music store one afternoon for about 30 musicians and fans. Bennink told stories and explained who inspired his foot on drum technique (Pygmies and Baby Dodds). He also demonstrated his idiosyncratic stick work and shared anecdotes about Eric Dolphy. Bennink flashed his sense of humor when asked if he had ever played metal music, and when questioned whom he is rooting for in the World Cup, replied, “I don’t care but I don’t want the Germans to win.”
More memorable moments occurred during an otherworldly set of free improvisations by pianist Lisa Cay Miller, flutist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Peggy Lee at Ironworks. Miller evoked a shimmering sound as she prepared the piano strings with jar lids and thin plastic tubing, which she manipulated for sonic effect. Mitchell mixed breath, wind and wordless vocals, and Lee attacked and plucked her strings, occasionally using her bow ambidextrously.
Vancouver’s wild man of the piano, Paul Plimley, leaped into a series of musical streams of consciousness with Han Bennink and Frank Gratkowski at Studio 700. Their collaboration at times flirted with consonance, at one point falling into the riff from Monk’s “Green Chimneys,” as well as other standard chord changes, which they themselves couldn’t identify. Bennink played his sticks on the floor for a “C Jam Blues” riff, and Plimley made effective use of flat fingers, knuckles and fists. You had to feel sorry for the piano tuner.
As usual, the late night jam sessions at the Listel Hotel continued into the early morning hours. George Benson showed up one night holding court at the bar, resplendent in a white suit, but he didn’t play (though his drummer did and turned the place out). Another night found Eric Harland and the guys from James Farm sitting in with the house band.
In a contracting jazz world still reeling from recession, where record labels are struggling, jazz clubs are closing and there’s less and less jazz to be found on the airwaves, the Vancouver Jazz Festival has managed to stay resilient for 25 years. That is due not only to the strong vision and organization behind the festival, but also because of a stepped-up commitment of support in recent years from TD Canada Trust. There may be bumps in the road ahead, as government support for the arts in Canada sags. There are also signs that European cultural agencies may start pulling back on travel support for their artists in response to shifting political priorities. The big unanswered question now involves the festival’s new Executive Director, Fatima Amarshi, who came on board just 5 weeks before this year’s festival. Can she respond to market forces and the changing landscape and still preserve the integrity of the festival’s programming? We’ll be watching.