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23rd Annual TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival

Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra

A weekend at the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival can feel like a whirlwind jet-setting adventure, a dizzying sprint through some of the music’s most exciting redoubts. If it’s noon at the Roundhouse this must be Amsterdam. Or Lisbon, Berlin, London, Chicago or Tokyo. Produced by the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society, the festival has become one of North America’s essential jazz showcases. Its commitment to booking underexposed artists from far-flung scenes is coupled with an ongoing program pairing British Columbia-based players with foreign counterparts, a strategy that pays ever-steeper creative dividends over the years. The 23rd annual edition of the Vancouver Festival was a triumph on every front, with one thrilling, jaw-dropping and downright entertaining musical encounter after another.

On the first of my five nights in Vancouver, starting on Wednesday, June 25, the power of the festival’s seemingly simple concept of bringing together far-flung aggregations was driven home by the Barry Guy New Orchestra, an international 10-piece ensemble featuring saxophonists Evan Parker and Hans Koch, trumpeter Herb Robertson, trombonist Johannes Bauer, Mats Gustafsson on woodwinds, pianist Agusti Fernandez, drummers Paul Lytton and Raymond Strid, and Per Ake Holmlander on tuba. As part of the festival’s Innovation Series at the Roundhouse Performance Centre the galvanizing British bassist opened the packed concert with a piece for brass trio based on long tones and a tidal tuba drone that slowly gathered force as the full ensemble joined the proceedings. It sounded like a huge, clanky homemade vehicle gathering momentum while rolling downhill, shedding parts along the way. For the second set, the ensemble offered a stunning tour de force full of multidirectional lines, varying the density of passages with the kind of careful calibration and textural shading that marks the finest free improvisers.

The immense possibilities and pleasures of free improvisation ran through the festival like a constant rebuke to jazz events that limit their scope to straight-ahead fare. On Thursday afternoon, violinist Carla Kihlstedt and pianist Satoko Fujii offered an engaging, often witty workshop at the Tom Lee Music Hall, including Fujii’s description of her implements and technique playing inside the piano. That evening they rejoined forces for a beautifully constructed duo set at the Roundhouse Performance Centre, exploring a vast range of sonic modalities and moods. Dampening the piano strings with calking, Fujii created gamelan-like cadences while Kihlstedt sang lines that overlapped and diverged from her dazzling violin playing, building to a cantorial wail. Cellist Peggy Lee, a Vancouver mainstay for two decades, opened the evening with her talented ensemble stocked with savvy, idiosyncratic improvisers, including trombonist Jeremy Berkman, guitarists Ron Samworth and Tony Wilson, saxophonist Jon Bentley and the tremendously resourceful drummer Dylan van der Schyff. Paying close attention to her charts, the eight-piece band opened with an elegiac arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want To Do” set to an open, rolling groove reminiscent of Abdullah Ibrahim. Her original compositions tend to feel like anthems that develop smoothly, with few sudden twists or dynamic shifts. The lack of jagged edges means that the music’s surprises emerge through the lush harmonies and cagey melodic themes. Lee closed the set with a ravishing interpretation of Kurt Weill’s “Lost In the Stars,” a prefect pairing of sensibilities.

Not that Vancouver is averse to mainstream acts. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gave a typically polished performance at the ornate Orpheum Theatre on Friday evening. The first set boasted several highlights, including the great baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley’s exquisitely tender “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and Ted Nash’s Spanish-tinged “Picasso” movement from his “Seven Shades” suite. I skipped out before the second set, inexorably pulled back to the Roundhouse by the duo of bassist Miroslav Vitous and Montreal vibraphonist Jean Vanasse. Playing as much arco as pizzicato, Vitous is still a marvel, a bassist with a tone so rich and thick it feels tactile, like luxuriant fabric. Striking a fine balance between the nostalgic and the cerebral, the duo played music that shimmered and crooned. Vitous added some processing and textures on laptop, and on “Jewish Psalm,” he trigged lithe string charts that served as an active counter voice. The lively jam sessions at O’Doul’s Restaurant and Bar at the Listel Hotel provided some of the festival’s most memorable moments, particularly on Friday, when about half the Lincoln Center crew showed up. The proceedings climaxed with a breathtaking trumpet cutting session featuring Marcus Printup and Sean Jones.

The festival roared to a close over the final weekend with free all-day programming at the three Roundhouse stages offering a continuous flow of music until about 9 p.m., when the ticketed double bills took over the Performance Centre space. Duane Andrews, an intense, charismatic Gypsy jazz guitarist from Newfoundland who has created a highly melodic style by incorporating French, Celtic and Portuguese influences, played an impressive set with his quartet trumpeter Patrick Boyle, bassist Dave Rowe and rhythm guitarist Steve Hussey (the same cast featured on his excellent new CD Raindrops). The Sliding Hammers, a quintet led by Swedish sister trombonists Mimmi Petersson Hammar and Karin Hammar, played a winning mix of hard bop and jazz/pop vocals.

But the afternoon’s international revelation was Way Out West, an extraordinary sextet from Australia featuring trumpeter/composer Peter Knight and Dung Nguyen on traditional Vietnamese zithers and guitar. Playing on the outdoor stage in David Lam Park, the group provided enough of a groove to get dozens of people up dancing in the sunshine. With Ray Pereira’s percussion and Paul Williamson’s tenor and soprano saxophone, the band’s combination of reed, brass and string textures was often fascinating, a highly effective East/West meeting by artists listening very closely to each other. Another supremely satisfying encounter took place back in the Performance Centre with bassist Michael Formanek and altoist Tim Berne, a regular presence at the festival since its founding. They played a compact 50-minute set consisting of two passages built on brief phrases that Berne repeated, expanded and dissected with precision and force.

Featuring two very different, but equally enthralling duos, Friday evening’s ticketed Roundhouse show was my personal festival highlight. Pianist Paul Plimley, Vancouver’s resident sprite and improvisational foil for all manner of foreign players, teamed up with Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell. Equally playful and virtuosic, they matched each other’s gambits on a program of free improvised sketches referencing blues, spirituals, art songs and airs. While Plimley often raced around the keyboard with zinging right-hand runs, Mitchell offered calm singing lines (with vocal overtones) that drew him into reflective spaces. On the final piece, Mitchell opened with a beautiful melody that kept Plimley poised over the keyboard for more than a minute, as he deliberated over the right moment to join her until he offered a series of delicate ascending chords that sustained her conch-like tone. Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman played the second set, and it was no less engaging. As formidable as any duo in jazz or contemporary music, the remarkable husband and wife team focused at first on several John Zorn Masada compositions, racing through his Hebraic pastiches with all the humor, pathos and antic energy that makes Zorn’s music so confoundingly engaging. Courvoisier’s original compositions proved just as rewarding, from an unsettling dreamscape to her breakneck “Two Speed,” a piece that bounced between the bass and treble so quickly it could cause whiplash.

Sunday’s program opened at the Roundhouse with the festival’s high school ensemble led by Nicole Mitchell, who has worked with the student ensemble for the past three years as the festival’s resident artist. The fact that this major player has never performed on the West Coast outside of Vancouver (for shame Seattle, San Francisco and L.A.!) made her work with the young players all the more impressive. She’s an artist who clearly knows how to get the most out of her charges, leading the group through a program ranging from Maria Schneider and Arturo Sandoval to Mingus and Ellington, with a couple of student originals as well.

Out at David Lam Park, Brazilian-born guitarist/vocalist Celso Machado, a festival mainstay for years, played a delightful set of choros with his trio, while inside the Roundhouse, Cuban pianist David Virelles, best known for his work with fellow Torontonian Jane Bunnett, tore through a set of Cuban post-bop with his quintet, including “Fiesta del Fuego,” a piece built on a Haitian rhythm prevalent in his hometown, Santiago de Cuba. Another tune grew out of a sampled Afro-Cuban chant, a lushly orchestrated arrangement that included keyboard programming straight from a 1960s sci-fi film soundtrack. Still in his mid-20s, Virelles possesses frightening technique and a vivid personality as a bandleader. A sense of leadership was what was missing from a free improv set by an ad hoc group of players at the Performance Centre, including Berne, Plimley, van der Schyff, Courvoisier, Feldman, Peggy Lee and Chris Speed. That’s an embarrassment of musical riches, and there were moments of real drama, particularly volatile duets between Speed on clarinet and van der Schyff, and Feldman and Plimley. But the two long sections often felt tentative, as if everyone wanted to avoid stepping on their colleagues’ toes.

Even as the festival was drawing to a close, several revelations awaited. Montreal’s madcap L’Orkestre des pas Perdu, a nine-piece brass band led by trombonist Claude St-Jean, played a torrid set of Gypsy funk. Vancouver vocalist/pianist Jennifer Scott has made some excellent recordings, but in person she’s a force of nature, an artist unafraid to take risks. Her big, warm contralto sounded in top form on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and an up-tempo version of “Just In Time” that climaxed with several thrilling scat choruses. Most audaciously, she transformed Lesley Gore’s hit “It’s My Party” into a tortured torch song. Scott is the kind of singer who you want to tackle your favorite songs, just to hear what she might do with them. The Roundhouse program concluded with the ticketed double bill featuring Amsterdam-based Corkestra, a free improv ensemble that sounded like Sun Ra meets Sergio Leone, and Berlin-based Portuguese bassist Carlos Bica’s Azul, a sensational trio featuring German guitarist Frank Mobus and monster drummer Jim Black. With his big cinematic themes and churning rhythms, Bica is a master of the slow buildup, as his tightly constructed pieces maintain a delicious tension between the shining melodies and his dark, roiling bass.

More than any other city on the West Coast, Vancouver has embraced a Pacific Rim identity. Maybe it’s a coincidence that a city with such a positive commitment to multiculturalism has nurtured a festival with such an adventurous spirit. But by embracing British Columbia’s thriving improvisational music and projecting it out into the world, the festival feels like an extension of a city in the process of reinventing itself (even if it tends to book artists from across the Atlantic rather than the Pacific). When it comes to experiencing a huge array of the world’s best jazz, there’s simply no better destination than Vancouver.

Originally Published