John Korsrud's Hard Rubber Orchestra remains as uncategorizable as ever

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      At the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts’ Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre on Saturday, May 9

      There was no opening act for the Hard Rubber Orchestra’s 25th-anniversary concert last weekend, but I think I liked the first band best.

      Yes, I know that’s a seeming contradiction, but when you turn up for a Hard Rubber show it can be hard to predict just what, exactly, you’re going to get. A chamber ensemble focusing on the thornier end of 21st-century composition? A hard-driving, jazzy big band? Or will leader John Korsrud indulge his love of Latin music by way of the HRO’s alter ego, Orquesta Goma Dura?

      Hard Rubber is so flexible that it can be almost uncategorizable, and that’s the version we heard in the first of two long sets at SFU Woodwards’ Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.

      The occasion was the launch of HRO’s third CD, Crush, and in a nod to that complex and flawless effort the band played two of Korsrud’s compositions from the disc, including its title track. On record, “Crush” is frighteningly fast and precise, but live it proved a warmer affair, with more soul and less swagger. Filling in for local hero Brad Turner, guest soloist Ingrid Jensen effectively channelled late-period Miles Davis, wah-wah pedal and all, on amplified trumpet.

      Even more compelling was Peggy Lee’s “If You Hear”, a lush eulogy for Charlie Haden. The late bassist was known for the strength and simplicity of his work as an accompanist, and André Lachance effectively tapped into that wellspring when he switched from electric to upright to introduce the piece. But Haden was also known as a highly politicized composer whose scores, especially for his own Liberation Music Orchestra, somehow found strength and beauty in the struggle for social justice. Lee drew similar qualities from her sorrow over Haden’s death, especially in “If You Hear” ’s chorale-like second movement, through which saxophonist Bill Runge threaded a gorgeously emotive solo.

      Capping the first set was the introduction of the local jazz scene’s next star: Eric Wettstein, whose “Mechanical Dreams” was both a thoughtful meditation on self-censorship and a jagged showcase for its composer’s extroverted guitar. As a vocalist, the 26-year-old Wettstein is still finding his feet; here, at least, it was easy to distinguish the suture lines where his jazz and rock leanings meet. But this was such a confident performance that improvement is assured; watch out for this guy!

      After intermission, Korsrud retired to the trumpet section, with Jensen’s sister Christine assuming the conductor’s podium to lead the musicians through three of her own scores. And with that, the Hard Rubber Orchestra turned into a conventional big band, and the temperature dropped considerably.

      It might have been better to have switched the concert’s running order, ending the first half with Christine’s nostalgic “Passing Lion’s Gate” before kicking the second part into high gear with Korsrud’s hyper-caffeinated “Slice”. But don’t get me wrong: Jensen is a very skilled composer, and her swinging ode to Montreal, “Intersection”, elicited another fine solo from the veteran Runge, matched by an equally fluid effort from another rising jazz star, Eli Bennett.

      Christine then called on her sister to open “At Sea”, which Ingrid accomplished by running her trumpet through a looper to produce the creaking of a boat at anchor, the hiss of surf on a shingle beach, and the mysterious calls of distant foghorns. “Passing Lion’s Gate”, commissioned by Korsrud and the HRO, continued the mood by offering a lyrical sound portrait of the Jensen sisters’ seaside upbringing in bucolic Cedar, near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.

      It was lovely—but hardly the blockbuster ending the night deserved. When it comes to the Hard Rubber Orchestra, I guess I’d rather be crushed than lulled.