If there’s one cultural event that sends a message we’re truly and finally back to something resembling normal, it’s the return of the sprawling TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Over the next 10 days you’ll have the chance to see over 700 artists in 200 shows spread across the city.
You already know about the big ones, including marquee attractions like the great Lucinda Williams. Here are five slightly-under-the-radar picks guaranteed to thrill.
Canabrava Now featuring Douglas R. Ewart and Mankwe Ndosi
(at the Ironworks on June 27 )
When talking about his Canabrava Now project, veteran composer, sculptor, and all-round renaissance man Douglas R. Ewart likes to throw around terms like diverse, resilient, and enduring. Professional gardeners and full-time Tiki-culture obsessives will happily inform you that Mirriam-Webster defines cana brava as bamboo—a plant whose 2,000 varietals grow in a myriad of sizes, and can be used to make everything from housing to paper to musical instruments to mai tai cups.
Given its endless flexibility, one can understand why Ewart chose the name Canabrava Now for a collective that includes vocalist Mankwe Ndosi, viola player Lucy Strauss, guitarist Matthew Ariaratnam, and pianist Lisa Cay Miller. Revisit Ewart’s career on Soundcloud, and you’ll be reminded that the 79-year-old Jamaican has, in addition to playing ever-reliable sideman, given the world everything from tribal soundscapes to spoken-word hymnals to free-form skronktastic freakouts.
Expect all that—or maybe none of it, because Ewart world is too big for pre-fabbed boxes—when CANABRAVA NOW plays Ironworks as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival’s Innovation Series.
Les Filles de Illighadad
(at Performance Works on July 3)
To get a leaping off point for the majesty of Les Filles de Illighadad, start with the eponymous full-length that introduced the band to the world in 2016. Recorded in the middle of the Niger desert, the 36-minute full-length is as hushed as it is hypnotic—a record that finds overwhelming beauty in lo-fi simplicity.
Once you know the backstory, the album is also a daring statement. Growing up in the Tuareg region of the Sahara Desert, Les Filles de Illighadad band leader Fatou Seidi Ghali wasn’t exactly encouraged to make music her international calling card. Every time Ghali’s father caught her clandestinely huddled over a guitar belonging to her brother, he suggested she’d be better off tending to the family cows.
Flash forward a few years and—after honing her skills at village weddings and gathering—Ghali has become the first female Tuareg guitarist to take on the world, her band blending the traditional folk of her homeland with early American field blues.
The power of Les Filles de Illighadad’s latest, Eghass Malan, is the way that the group plants one foot in the here-and-now with enchantingly quiet electric guitar, yet continues to honour its past with goatskin drums and tradition-bound vocals. Expect to be not only be enchanted, but transported.
Youn Sun Nah
(at Performace Works on June 27)
It’s one thing to make a career out of mixing and matching musical styles—everything from American industrial and French chanson, to Korean blues and Latin jazz. And it’s another to do that with results that are nothing less than stunning. On that front, here’s a good introduction to the genius of veteran Seoul singer Young Sun Han: her stunning reimagining of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. As mesmerizing as Johnny Cash was, Youn Sun Nah arguably does it better.
For most of her three-decade career the 52-year-old Korean chanteuse has turned the works of others into her own. To revisit her back catalogue is to marvel at the way the Fairport Convention’s “A Sailor’s Life, Stan Jones’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” all sound like rainy-street jazz in a smoky Paris speakeasy.
Evidently of the opinion that truly great artists never stop pushing themselves, Youn Sun Nah’s wrote, for the first time, all the songs on new album Working Well. From the grey-streaked opening rumination “Bird on the Ground” to the blackhearted balladry of “Tangled Soul”, songs set the singer’s dream-pop vocals to gauzy, distortion-hazed keys and strings. The result is a fiercely original work that’s downbeat yet disorientingly dazzling. Youn Sun Nah has been at it for a while, and has the endless accolades to show for it. With Working Well she sends a message she’s just getting started.
(at the Ironworks on July 2)
Sweden’s Fire! isn’t the first sax, drums, and bass trio to take a swing at experimental rock ’n’ roll—if you’ve got a Morphine shirt still hanging in there from the ’90s, put it on and crank up “Honey White”. But while Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling, and Andreas Werlin have been known to hit the stage and studio with members of (SUNN O))), Sonic Youth, and the Refused, the band’s obsessions don’t stop at postrock or painstripping no-wave. Add lethal doses of fiercely combative free jazz and add a telepathic appreciation for noise and you’re just beginning to sum things up.
Vancouverites have thrilled to Gustafsson in past years as a member of the Thing, a cover band devoted to reinventing the work of rock innovators like PJ Harvey, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the White Stripes. At this point, take a second and ask yourself how Jack White or Polly Jean would handle the task of covering Fire!, which is all cautious creeping exploration one minute, and then full-bore brute aggression the next.
As the fabulous freaky Mike Watt has noted, some musicians are born to be ball hogs and other tugboats. The brilliance of Fire! is that both descriptions apply to all of the band's members. Get ready to watch the sweat fly, and not just from the willing—and thrilling—combatants on stage.
Great Aunt Ida
(at Performance Works on July 2)
There’s a well-worn saying that life’s a journey, and that most certainly informs Ida Nilsen’s fourth and latest album Unsayable. A veteran of Vancouver’s indie underground, the singer-keyboardist’s roots stretch back to the ’90s, when she was famous-about-town for running the much-missed indie venue the Sugar Refinery.
In some ways Unsayable’s beginnings can be traced to one of the weirdest places on the planet: America. Because her press kit puts things better than we could, let’s not even try topping Great Aut Ida's take on the record’s origins.
As per her press kit, “The album’s nine songs were written over a period of six years, a timeline which took songwriter and pianist Ida Nilsen from a period of living in Detroit, in pursuit of some kind of 21st C dystopian American Dream, back to a Vancouver that, instead of being comfortably familiar, had become strange in her absence. Letting go of a place that no longer existed became part of a personal reckoning of past and present that put change in a new light and convinced Nilsen that it wasn’t too late to learn new things.”
If you’ve lived in this city for any amount of time—or, even more importantly, been pushed out of it for choosing art over a career in tech or banking—then you know where the singer is coming from.
Backed by some of Vancouver's greatest hired guns—including bassist Mark Haney and trumpeter JP Carter—Unsayable starts on a devastatingly world-weary note with the “Shoes” opening lines “Seems like I am always singing old songs/I am never sure who they were for.” And, inspirationally, the album ends with the impossibly gorgeous “Open Water”, where rippling piano, symphony-of-sorrow strings, and Nilsen’s optimistically winsome vocals suggest that sometimes, if you can just hang in there, everything is going to be alright.
The TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival takes place at various locations around the city from June 24 to July 3. Visit coastaljazz.ca for the full schedule and ticket info.