As expected, this year’s TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival boasts a number of heavy hitters, including soul-jazz great George Benson, Americana-minded experimentalist Bill Frisell, and conceptual funk-pop performer Janelle Monáe, to name but a few. But somehow amid all the big-name talent—some would argue almost impossibly—it’s local underground composer Keith Wecker who has become the face of the fest.
A new commercial for the event features the imposing, bearded musician and two other members of his mighty V.Vecker Ensemble making their way through the city by foot, skateboard, and scooter to gleefully jam outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The only problem is, that’s not their music you’re hearing in the advert. As it stands, the safe and saccharine clarinet tootling in the 30-second clip is a world away from the group’s slow-building arrangements and occasionally atonal guitar drones.
“We were told that we were just going to mime, but then they wanted to use something of ours. I don’t think they knew exactly who they got to be in their commercial,” Wecker says with a laugh before sucking backing a cigarette outside of Solly’s Bagelry on Main. He explains that producers eventually opted out of using a sprawling V.Vecker original, but still wanted to showcase some “young, hip-looking dudes”.
While he’s currently performing as an octet, Wecker first used the V.Vecker handle around a half-dozen years ago to rep his solo improv noise pieces. As time went on, he began incorporating other people into his show, including drummer Justin Gradin, who used to play with Wecker in punk deconstructionists Sex Negatives.
The ensemble’s current lineup features a grab bag of musicians plucked from a number of notable local institutions. Guitarist Brody McKnight and bassist Andrea Lukic play in critical scuzz-rock darlings Nü Sensae; bassist Liam Butler is from tropical experimentalists No Gold; santurist Luka Rogers plays in world-beat–minded unit Basketball, as does drummer Dave Rogers, who also plays in stoner troupe Aquanaut with Wecker. Percussionist Corey Woolger also beats skins in dour postpunks Cowards, and six-stringer Daniel Presnell was culled from psychedelic titans Von Bingen. The varied backgrounds of its personnel ensure the outfit “wasn’t just noiseniks from the [now-defunct underground show spot] Emergency Room”.
“Liam from No Gold plays in it and they’re on a whole different side of things than what Brody or Andrea are doing,” Wecker elaborates of his consorts. “The thing that I like about these people is that they have a similar mentality: they’re very open to tons of styles of music. They weren’t afraid to try anything.”
The first piece composed for the ensemble proper was 2010’s “Melted Bronze”. The suite was inspired by an alternate tuning Wecker used in a performance as part of a guitar army with legendary avant-garde soundsmith Glenn Branca in 2008. Wecker’s act takes the open tuning, which spreads two notes over six strings, and creates a wobbly wall of noise with movements alternating between dense and cyclical no-wave melodies and cochlea-cracking, freeform noise blasts.
The group’s latest piece, “In the Tower”, recently pressed on 12-inch vinyl through new local imprint Majorly, is an altogether more ornate beast. Recorded at the Media Club by Vancouver sound guru Josh Stevenson, the 20-minute track finds the V.Vecker Ensemble tackling a much more delicate melody.
“It was a nice shift from purely bass, guitar, and drums to something a little less Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham; a little less rock ’n’ roll,” Wecker notes of the song.
Despite the heavy pounding of Woolger and Dave Rogers, McKnight and Presnell’s interlocking, descending eastern guitar motifs and Wecker’s moody, soul-sculpting Hammond organ lines lilt into the ether. The most majestic moment, however, is an extended santur section mid-piece, which finds Luka Rogers rippling out lush and watery dulcimer tones.
“I really had no idea what he was going to do; I had very sparse and minimal direction for him. It’s tuned to quarter tones, so you can’t really write on a traditional scale for that,” Wecker says, explaining that while he often brings fully formed works to the team, members generally get to shape their contributions. “It’s basically him soloing over the whole thing.”
With so many other projects linked to the V.Vecker Ensemble—with some, like Nü Sensae, slowly creeping into careerdom—the collective’s performances are few and far between. The band’s jazz-fest show is only its sixth in two years. Aside from applying for some upcoming festival gigs across Europe, Wecker isn’t sure just what the future holds for the unit’s current line-up.
“As important as this core group of people are to me, if I need a bass player and they’re out of town, they’re supportive of me getting a fill-in if need be,” he admits of the nebulous arrangement. “Other things I’m writing may not need eight people, or even three people. It might be cool to section it off; have the Ensemble, as well as a V.Vecker Band where we could do some proper touring.”
Like his open-ended compositions, Wecker feels his project will always be in a state of flux.
“If you’re going to be making improv music, you might as well be able to have an improv life.”
The V.Vecker Ensemble plays Ironworks on Friday (June 22) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.