Probably the biggest surprise at the 2013 Juno Awards came when Pugs and Crows was awarded best instrumental album for last year’s Fantastic Pictures. Not because the kudos were undeserved—Fantastic Pictures is indeed a fantastic collection of tuneful yet enigmatic adventures in sound—but because the Vancouver quintet is mostly an under-the-radar treat at home, and pretty much unknown everywhere else. Bands without a manager, without a record label, and—temporarily, at least—without a website don’t often get this kind of recognition.
There’s another way of looking at the Juno, though. It doesn’t just recognize Pugs and Crows as an exceptionally talented young band: it also honours the scene that it’s come out of, a Vancouver-specific amalgamation of musicians trained in various jazz, classical, and popular styles who are more interested in creative fusion than rote specialization. The members of Pugs and Crows—violinist Meredith Bates, pianist Cat Toren, bassist Russell Sholberg, drummer Ben Brown, and guitarist Cole Schmidt—are probably among the first generation of improvisers who’ve emerged listening to other Vancouver musicians as primary sources. And in many ways, their music is stronger for it: bandleader and main composer Schmidt, in particular, has a gift for fluid, cinematic scores that reflect the West Coast’s ever-changing weather as much as they do his compositional idols Peggy Lee, Ron Samworth, and Tony Wilson.
“I definitely look to a lot of the musicians in Vancouver for inspiration,” says Schmidt, on the line from his East Van home. “People like Tony and Peggy—these composers definitely inspire my writing, where before it was based on John Zorn and these other sources. In the last little while, I’ve definitely paid a lot more attention to the artists in our city.”
Truth be told, he’s had to. In addition to his fascination with the generation that preceded him, Schmidt has become one of the local scene’s biggest cheerleaders. He’s responsible for curating the ongoing Wednesday- and Thursday-night improv sessions at the El Barrio restaurant on East Hastings, and his efforts there haven’t gone unnoticed; this year, he’s also booking the jazz-fest entertainment at Electric Owl, on Main Street.
“I just wanted to shine a bit more light on some of the bands that exist in the city, and to help the community quit complaining about how bad the Libra Room is and how good it used to be,” he says, with a wry reference to another local venue alternately loved and loathed by those who play there. “I guess those were the two aspects that inspired me to start X-Site [the El Barrio series] in the first place. But it is a very great example of the power of numbers. It has everything to do with having all the musicians coming out to play and show that the community exists. It’s awesome, and I think it’s really inspiring. There are a lot of bands that are being created from those nights because they’re allowed to play what they want and try out their music in front of an audience.”
Schmidt notes that his own creativity is fed by his work as an event organizer. And these days he’s also gaining inspiration from his increasingly close musical relationship with the aforementioned Tony Wilson, who’ll join Pugs and Crows during its two Vancouver International Jazz Festival shows as well as on the follow-up to Fantastic Pictures, which the band hopes to complete this fall.
The admiration, it seems, is mutual.
“The first thing I noticed about the band was the ability of the three soloists to actually improvise together,” says Wilson, who conveniently happens to be sitting on Schmidt’s couch on interview day. “That’s a pretty rare quality. I don’t hear that in many bands at all, of any ilk, anywhere. Lots of times you have bands with great soloists, but if you try to get them to improvise together it just becomes a bunch of noodling. And then the other thing was the compositions. Cole’s got his own way of doing things and he’s kept on doing it, so the music has become quite original.”
Original enough to win a Juno, even—although that doesn’t seem to have gone to the younger musician’s head.
“What does it change? It changes how my parents feel about me playing this weird music,” Schmidt says, laughing. “And, yeah, I guess it’s encouraging. It just told us to keep doing what we want to do, and that’s not always the case.
“It’s also a nice way to ring the bell,” he adds. “If we’re trying to get hold of some place in Toronto or whatever, now that we have the Juno, they’ll return our emails, so that’s good. Otherwise we’re still working day jobs and struggling to get together to rehearse—but I’ve got this nice shiny trophy on my desk!”