At various venues on Saturday and Sunday (June 28 and 29)
It’s Monday morning and I have a jazz hangover, despite having consumed nothing more noxious than Perrier and some ill-advised food-truck chicken. (Memo to self: just because it’s cooked in a truck doesn’t mean it’s healthy.)
But I don’t think it’s borderline food poisoning that’s making it hard to unstick my eyes. More likely it’s having sampled 16 separate indoor sets, outdoor performances, and workshops within a mere 36 hours. You can get too much of a good thing, or so it seems.
Nonetheless, local jazz fans have to act like bears in berry season when June rolls around: sustenance is here, it won’t last long, it’s delicious, and a lot of it is free.
Those who chose to take in shows on the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s David Lam Park stage paid for their pleasure by getting doused, though, especially on a blustery Saturday afternoon. Local post-everything quartet Spring’s opening set was accompanied by a full-on summer downpour, complete with ominous rumbles of thunder, although this didn’t dampen the band’s delivery. Never mind that its clockwork rhythms are the antithesis of swing: the tension between Joseph Hirabayashi’s plaintive, folk flavoured singing and his bandmates’ neo-prog precision was electric.
More evidence that Vancouver is churning out gifted young bands was audible at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre’s Exhibition Hall, where the blandly named 4 = 4 opened with two sets of music that was anything but anodyne. Meredith Bates was the sonic star here, her rich tone on electric violin cut with a questioning edge that kept easy sentimentality at bay, but most of the compositions were penned by guitarist Tom Wherrett, a relatively new arrival on the local improv scene.
An exception—and a highlight—came with an as-yet-untitled piece by Hornby Island guitarist Tony Wilson that unfolded like an episodic and very lovely dream. Wilson’s writing has clearly had an impact on Wherrett, whose tunes are similarly expansive, but the younger guitarist gets bonus points for playing a scarlet Gibson Firebird VII—perhaps the first time this iconic rock ’n’ roll instrument has ever been used in a creative-music context.
I’d rave more about 4 = 4, except that its set was followed by two from Sick Boss that were even better. Led by Bates’ Pugs and Crows bandmate Cole Schmidt on guitar, Sick Boss started out as a weekly jam session at an East Vancouver restaurant and has now evolved into a juggernaut sextet with a front line of Tyson Naylor on accordion, Jeremy Page on clarinet, and Peggy Lee on cello. The timbral flexibility this gives Schmidt, the group’s main composer, is immense, and he’s got a way of writing clarinet and accordion lines that coil around each other in an extremely attractive manner.
Schmidt, by the way, is another Wilson protege, and it’s interesting to hear how both 4 = 4 and Sick Boss build on the luminous, enigmatically tuneful, and often rather pointillistic approach taken by Wilson’s various bands, Lee’s sextet (which Wilson plays in), and another Lee project, Talking Pictures.
An indigenous Vancouver sound seems to be developing, coloured by wet winters and seascape vistas and now enlivened by the energy of a younger generation. It’s a beautiful thing.
Sunday’s Roundhouse programming was less successful. In the Exhibition Hall, the Big Much was much too introverted to hold the attention of a restive crowd, while Sharon Minemoto’s trio set was hampered by the leader’s use of a weak-sounding electric keyboard. (She’s a fine pianist, so why not just go with that?) Hard-core improv lovers flocked to the Performance Centre to hear Distant Relatives with the legendary British vocalist Phil Minton; they weren’t disappointed by Minton’s theatrical hissings and garglings, but otherwise it was an oddly polite performance for a group that also included sonic provocateur Torsten Muller on bass and the admittedly wonderful Swedish trombonist Mats Aleklint. Temperate though it was, it far surpassed the subsequent trio set from French flutist Michel Edelin, American cellist Tomeka Reid, and Distant Relatives holdover Dylan van der Schyff on drums. Respected though he is at home, Edelin seemed lost here, tootling on a variety of flutes and vocalizing tunelessly without ever engaging his fellow performers—or the audience, for that matter.
In contrast to this series of flawed performances, Mark Dresser’s Roundhouse workshop was a Sunday treat. The master bassist, who helped Harris Eisenstadt’s Golden State quartet deliver a lovely concert-cum-recording-session at Ironworks on Saturday night, broke down a few of his innovative performance techniques—generating sounds behind his fretting hand; weaving the hair of his bow through the strings—while also providing some biographical details. Who knew, for instance, that hearing Jimi Hendrix inspired the articulate UCal San Diego prof to emulate guitar feedback through ponticello bowing? Everything is connected, after all.
After a busy afternoon, the festival closed on a pair of very high notes. At the Vogue, jazz diva Cassandra Wilson ran the voodoo down with her own funky “Redbone”, which summoned the spirit of Papa Legba before morphing into a sanctified “When the Saints Go Marching In”. Another thoughtful segue linked Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” to Joni Mitchell’s “Black Crow”; that Wilson knows how to pick songwriters—and charm a Canadian audience—was obvious when she sent the SRO crowd home with a velvety version of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon”.
From there, it was back to the Ironworks, where a few dozen die-hards were knocked out by the unapologetic virtuosity of British pianist Alexander Hawkins, New York–based drummer Eisenstadt, and local clarinetist François Houle. Playing mostly Houle’s tunes, with a pair of nods to the late saxophonist and composer Steve Lacy, these occasional collaborators played with the focus of a long-established group, along with the fiercest intensity of any 2014 jazz-festival act. Surfing came to mind: piano and cymbals created waves of sound that Houle rode with the confidence of a seasoned waterman, often hanging on the peak of a high note before carving fresh melodic curves.
It was a thrilling close to a festival weekend that enjoyed sun, suffered storms, and only occasionally found itself awash in the doldrums.