In another world—not necessarily a better one, but definitely different than our own—jazz would be an introvert’s music.
Pianists would aspire to the calm clarity of John Lewis rather than the baroque inventions of Art Tatum. Wynton Marsalis would be a remote outlier, and Nate Wooley would be every music student’s idol.
And the Vancouver-based trio Waxwing would… Well, Waxwing would probably be doing what it’s doing today, which is making quietly gorgeous music. But multi-instrumentalist Jon Bentley, cellist Peggy Lee, and guitarist Tony Wilson would be hitting the Orpheum as TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival headliners, rather than playing for a couple of hundred people at a free afternoon show.
It’s not that any of these three musicians are shrinking violets. Lee, for example, has written some beautifully contemplative tunes, both for Waxwing and for her own bands, but she’s also capable of exposing her darkest and most demented secrets by way of her cello. And while Wilson spends a lot of time working on music in his rustic Hornby Island cabin, he’s also outgoing enough to mentor a slew of younger musicians and convene regular large-band tributes to his own musical inspirations.
But none of them could be described as gaudy self-promoters, as Bentley readily attests.
“I would say the three of us together are not the most…” he begins, in a telephone interview from his North Vancouver home. Then he has a little rethink. “Hmmm. Maybe I’ll put it to you this way: it’s always like, ‘Okay, who’s going to do the talking, guys? Who’s going to speak on the mike today?’ Usually, we force Tony Wilson out there. But, yeah, it’s not an overly flamboyant trio, I would say, so it would make sense if the music reflects that.”
And it does. Much of A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists, the group’s new release on the Vancouver-based Songlines label, is contemplative and delicate, the product of a careful conversation between the three players. That said, it’s probably fair to call Bentley the driving force behind the new record—if driving force isn’t too assertive a term. Once Waxwing laid down its bed tracks for A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists, he and his partner, recording engineer Miranda Clingwall, spent several months editing, structuring, and ornamenting those original tracks. Bentley’s primary instruments are saxophone and clarinet, but he added upright bass, percussion, ocarina, and electronics to the mix, always as unobtrusively as possible.
“Hopefully, they add to the overall concept,” he says modestly—and when he’s assured that they do, he’s evidently relieved. “Other people have said that, too, and I’m very happy about that,” he notes. “I had this terrible vision in my head of way overdoing it and going, ‘What do you think, Peggy and Tony?’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh my God, what have you done?’ ”
Bentley also gave the new record its theme. A Bowl of Sixty Taxidermists is dedicated to the late pianist and saxophonist Ross Taggart, a mainstay of the Vancouver jazz scene who died of renal cancer in 2013.
“While I was writing that music, I was living right beside Vancouver General Hospital,” he explains. “Ross was in hospice there, in palliative care, and I was bringing him food and hanging out with him through his later days. So of course it totally influenced the way I was writing. It only made sense, then, to dedicate the album to Ross.”
Lee and Wilson readily agreed, with the latter adding his own heartfelt “For Ross” to the mix.
“Ross was a pretty important figure for myself—and for many other people,” Bentley elaborates. “Early on, when I was quite inexperienced, he was more than gracious with his time, with his knowledge, and with his experiences. At first he was someone that I would go and hear playing, and then he was my teacher, and then we were often sharing the stage as professionals together. And his wife, Sharon Minemoto, was my roommate at the time they met. So I was quite connected to Ross in a lot of ways.”
Even though Taggart’s gone, the connection continues to deepen. Taggart gave Waxwing’s new disc its title; Bentley explains that “Bring me a bowl of 60 taxidermists” was one of his deathbed requests. “No doubt he was half asleep, and there were some medications involved,” Bentley explains. “But I just loved the image so much that I ended up writing a song named that.”
And if the saxophonist sounds a little like his late friend and mentor on Wilson’s “For Ross”, there’s good reason for that: in his will, Taggart left Bentley his soprano sax.
“It’s another connection, and it’s pretty interesting to have his horn,” the younger musician notes. “I’m envisioning him listening to it somewhere, you know—and I’m going, ‘Oh, man, I hope I’ve done you good!’ ”
Bentley needn’t worry about that, for he has.
Waxwing plays a free Performance Works concert on Saturday (June 27) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.