Vancouver was doing its best Havana impersonation as Hugh Fraser and VEJI took to the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s Georgia Stage on June 21. The heat was certainly Cuban-esque, and the music was, too: substitute battered Biscaynes and Bel Airs for the circling Beemers and Benzes, and you could have just strolled off the Malecón and into a full-on Latin street party, especially when Jack Duncan kicked off Fraser’s “The Key of Love” with a conga-drumming firestorm. That, in turn, led into a round of solos from the band’s three accomplished saxophonists: Bill Runge, sounding earthy, as always, on baritone; Campbell Ryga, dancing complex patterns on alto; and Daniel Miles Kane, hitting both high notes and gut-punching lows on tenor.
For all the brass power in this veteran big band, now celebrating its 35th year, it was the reeds that starred, especially on a Fraser original that’s been around almost as long as the band. “Skreeab-Bop!” never gets old, though, with its fusion of ’40s bebop melody, Slavic impressionism, and shout-along chorus. Inspired by the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin’s harmonic vocabulary and the American trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie’s iconic “Salt Peanuts”, the tune featured another serpentine solo from Ryga, the modern-day equivalent of Gillespie’s bop-era sparring partner, Charlie Parker.
Better still, though, was the number that preceded it, “Our Man Ross in Havana”. Another conceptual fusion, this one mixed Latin jazz with spy-movie music, as if Henry Mancini had been born Enrique Mancinez. A quick scan showed that nearly everyone in the packed Vancouver Art Gallery plaza was smiling, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a big grin on Ross Taggart’s face, too. Fraser dedicated the tune to his late comrade and bandmate, and while Taggart’s body is long gone from the local jazz scene, his big heart was clearly in attendance.
The first time that Snarky Puppy played Vancouver, it was to an audience of music students and their instructors in a nondescript Vancouver Community College hall. Two years later, the Dallas-bred Brooklynites sold out the Vogue, that suggesting one of the more pleasant consequences of the death of the music industry has been the rise of a thousand subcultures, including one that’s fully in love with assertive, funk-and-big-band-flavoured jazz. Newcomers to the Puppy might have left slightly disappointed, however—or at least this one did. Snarky Puppy’s groundbreaking 2014 release, the CD-and-DVD combo We Like It Here, captivated with its abundant energy and nuanced sound, but only one of those qualities made it onto the Vogue Theatre stage on June 21.
For its West Coast tour, the 18-piece band that made We Like It Here shrank to a mere seven. Gone are the string-quartet textures, and with them all of the band’s female members; gone as well are two of the larger unit’s three guitarists, who helped make Snarky Puppy’s forays into Afrobeat and rock so convincing. Also missing was Michael League’s Moog bass—the band’s leader played a Fender electric all night long—and with it the attractive air of modernity that distinguished this unit from other music-school-sourced large bands. Snarky Puppy compensated with volume, which had the perverse effect of making the band less compelling and more oppressive.
At least the group’s energy was undiminished. Credit drummer Larnell Lewis and percussionist Nate Werth for that: their symbiotic rapport drives this band beautifully. Also impressive was brass specialist Michael “Maz” Maher, especially on flügelhorn. But if Snarky Puppy intends to continue with this smaller format, it needs to find a better balance between crowd-pleasing bravado and ear-piercing bluster.
Royalty was in the house for pianist Renee Rosnes’s triumphant return to Vancouver—music-education royalty, that is, in the form of Bob Rebagliati. The former North Vancouver School District band teacher helped Rosnes find her feet in the music world before she left for New York, and must have been pleased to see how she’s blossomed since. But he wasn’t the only regal force present: Rosnes’s long-time rhythm section of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash are hard-bop kings, and played accordingly. Nash, in particular, is one of the most musical percussionists around, and gave a master class in how to make a cymbal sing.
Early on in her set, Rosnes celebrated a pair of her influences by performing a nicely updated version of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz”, then swooning into Duke Pearson’s ballad “You Know I Care”. But her own compositions were equally captivating, if not more so. A three-piece suite inspired by Charles Darwin deserves inclusion on her next release, both as political statement—Rosnes is clearly not enamoured of creationism—and as musical masterpiece. The introductory “Galapagos” was perhaps the most impressive, with Rosnes delivering more than a hint of McCoy Tyner’s ecstatic splashiness, but the brooding “Written in the Rock” and the elaborately syncopated “Lucy” also suggested that the pianist’s own evolution is progressing well.