TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival delivers dirges and delights

Fluid improvisation
Introduced by TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival artistic director Ken Pickering as “one of the most ambitious projects in the festival's history”, the multimedia extravaganza Fixed Fluid Fragmented has to go down as at least a partial triumph—if not quite for the reasons organizers hoped.

On opening night (June 25), at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre, the project's all-star band—initially broken down into two trios and a duet—delivered some astonishingly accomplished improvising during the first of the night's two sets.

With baroque violinist Maya Homburger waiting patiently, bassist Barry Guy and cellist Peggy Lee began by showing just how visual freeform music can be, splashing droplets of sound across a blank canvas of silence and then crafting oozing pools of dark texture. When the violinist came in, the music transformed into a more conventionally chamber-music-like, yet no less attractive, exploration of string-trio sonorities.

A duo of pianist Paul Plimley and percussionist Lucas Niggli suggested monkeys at play, with Plimley jabbing at the keyboard with cupped paws and Niggli pattering his bare hands on the drums, then beating sounds out of the air with long, thin sticks. This was hilariously inspired and a nice setup for the high-pressure note cannons of Guy, saxophonist Evan Parker, and trumpeter Peter Evans, who turned three simultaneous streams of abstract sound into one hugely compelling skein.

Alas, the addition of improvised animation during the second set added relatively little to the mix. Granted, the three “fixed” pieces of Fixed Fluid FragmentedMichel Gagné's studio-made interpretations of recorded duos by Guy and Plimley—were wonderful: the Bellingham-based animator has quite successfully invented a visual language that captures the spontaneous wizardry of free improvisation. Live, though, he and his wife and accomplice Nancy Gagné often seemed to be lagging behind the sound or working with a comparatively meagre palette next to the massively gifted musicians.

Essentially, Gagné is combining and processing computerized sequences that he's prepared in advance. But the music might be better reflected if he could find a way to generate some images in real time, perhaps using some kind of drawing tablet. His hard-edged, geometrical shapes also seemed simplistic next to the torn and smeared edges of the sound; long passages simply featured oscillating lines and spermy little squiggles racing across a large screen mounted behind the performers.

Much ado about nothing? No. This was a brave and worthwhile first step toward a new and more comprehensive integration of sound and vision—but the journey's barely begun.

Ice Queen
Susanna Wollumrí¸d and her “magical” accomplice Morten Qvenild offered surprising visual contrast at Performance Works on Friday (June 25). None are more blond than the Norwegian singer, masquerading as a stereotypical Ice Queen in a black-and-white striped designer dress. But keyboardist Qvenild, who came on-stage in an evil-looking black hoodie before doffing it to reveal a rumpled T-shirt, was all stubble and beer gut—the latter perhaps explained by his frequently toasting the audience with shouts of “Skol !”

Musically, however, the two members of Susanna and the Magical Orchestra clearly share a common agenda, which often involves sounding like the house band at the Arctic Institute for the Terminally Morose. Tempos ranged all the way from moderate to creepingly slow, with the two even turning AC/DC's “It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll)” into a dirge.

Other cover versions essayed included Bob Dylan's “Don't Think Twice, It's Alright”, Prince's “Condition of the Heart”, and Rush's “Subdivisions”, suggesting that the two have a perverse sense of humour that's not always evident from their brooding originals. Another remake, this time of Joy Division's “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, didn't quite surpass its prototype but was certainly convincingly delivered. If Susanna and the Magical Orchestra—on their first North American tour after making three successful albums at home—turn out to be the new darlings of the depressed, it will be for good reason.

Piaf lives
Martha Wainwright's performance of the songs of Edith Piaf at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Saturday (June 26) was an audience's dream: an immensely talented musician, engaging but never ingratiating, interpreting the work of one of the most theatrical singers of all time with a passion that was real.

Wainwright covered material from her recent live homage to Piaf and her songwriters, Sans Fusils, ni Souliers, í  Paris. She has the intelligence to shy away from the emotionally gritty Parisian chanteuse's obvious classics, preferring to highlight lesser-known gems such as “Marie Trottoir”, about an aging streetwalker, and “Le Brun et le Blond”, a laconic tale about choosing between two lovers.

Wainwright, wearing a tight, high-waisted black dress, employed some of Piaf's hallmark theatrical gestures to punctuate and sometimes illustrate the streetwise lyrics. Her French is excellent and she savoured every last syllable. Backed by an agile trio on drums, bass, and guitar, Wainwright drew deep on Piaf's spunky spirit while avoiding any sense of parody and remaining entirely herself as an artist. It was a moving achievement.

Energetic veterans
The Schlippenbach Trio is reportedly the longest-running unit in improvised music, having survived 40 years. That showed in the band's July 26 set at the Roundhouse, with all three musicians contributing to a long, completely improvised, and seamless performance. Toward the end, though, many in the audience felt that they'd been as long in the trenches as the players: an hour and a half of intense, demanding music is undeniably taxing on the ears.

Pianist Alexander von Schlippenbach, saxophonist Evan Parker, and drummer Paul Lovens could easily have ended their roiling set around the 60-minute mark, when it seemed to ebb to a natural, and peaceful, conclusion. But like grey-haired Energizer bunnies, the veterans—72, 66, and 61, respectively—quickly fired things up again.

The final third of the trio's set gave listeners time to reflect on what these three have brought to the world of improvisation. Lovens's jittery, skittering attack has served as the prototype for much 21st-century drumming, while Parker's abstract but hypnotic sense of melodic development has been equally influential. Von Schlippenbach, in turn, has probably had more impact as a theoretician than a pianist; by effectively erasing the lines between American jazz and European composition, he's been integral to the development of a new hybrid music that reflects the ideals implicit in the name of his other notable band, the Globe Unity Orchestra.

Without these three, contemporary music would sound very different.