The Vancouver jazz scene is mourning the passing of pianist Paul Plimley. Friends, fans, and musical collaborators are reporting that Plimley passed away from cancer at the age of 69.
One of the city’s most gifted improvisors, the pianist was a founder of Vancouver’s New Orchestra Workshop Society in 1977, as well as a mainstay of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Over the course of a career that spanned six decades he recorded albums as a bandleader with the likes of bassists Lisle Ellis and Barry Guy, and percussionist Trichy Sankaran.
As a respected collaborator, he also made records with American sax player Joe McPhee, guzheng innovator Mei Han, and California composer Anthony Davis.
First enamoured with rock giants such as Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, Plimley’s world was rocked in his mid-teens when he discovered improvised American jazz. That set him down a path which established him as one of the greats of the Canadian jazz scene.
While technically gifted, Plimley was noted for understanding that playing music should also be joyful and fun. In a review of the 2012 collaboration Hexentrio (which featured the pianist with Guy, and Swiss drummer Lucas Niggli) long-time Straight jazz critic Alexander Varty wrote, “But there’s more than mere technique going on in this music, which ranges from hushed, impressionistic meditations to scarifying blasts of noise to fleeting passages of sweetness and light. What most animates the band is its giddy physicality, likely stemming from the curious corporeal rapport between the drummer and the pianist.”
That joy was also a hallmark of Plimley offstage. On Facebook, friend Jhayne Faust wrote. “It feels impossible that we’ve been robbed so soon of his goofy laughter and kind heart, his iconoclastic, arty jokes and his frankly adorable everything else. He was a soft, gentle man, who did his best and was, quite often, successful at it. I was blessed to know him. We were all blessed. May his memory always be a celebration.”
Jazz writer Mark Miller weighed in with, “I am stunned by word tonight from Vancouver of the passing of Paul Plimley, one the Canadian jazz scene’s true originals, at the age of 69. I once described him as ‘an impulsive improviser whose considerable expressivity and physicality at the keyboard, post-Cecil Taylor, was leavened by a lyricism born—he would say—of Debussy and a twinkling sense of humour, if not mischief, entirely of his own.’”
Vancouver composer Lan Tung remembered Plimley as someone who was above all willing to share his knowledge with his peers, whether they were established or just starting out.
“To Paul Plimley, a great friend and mentor!,” Tung wrote on Facebook. “Paul was willing to spend the time to play with me when I was just at the beginning stage of improvising. He taught me so much. He was a great influence and inspiration to so many. He named his commission for the Orchid Ensemble ‘Proliferasian’, and later allowed me to call my new ensemble in that name. When Paul came to Orchid Ensemble’s rehearsals of the piece, we had a 4th part to the trio—that’s his dance. He demonstrated with his body how we would all play in different tempo at the same time...”
Here’s a Coastal Jazz video from last year in which Plimley discusses his career, his love and passion for music on full display.