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Vancouver Jazz Festival 2008


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Just thought I'd scribble a little on the Vancouver festival which is taking place right now (June 20-29). I'm here, reviewing it for Signal to Noise magazine, so my concertgoing is strongly slanted towards the avant-garde zone of the festival as that's largely what STN focusses on. Anyway, my first time in the city--in some ways it reminds me of back home in Halifax, that port city air & feeling, though obviously the mountains looming in the backdrop are a major difference, not to mention the truly hideous urban blight of the section of the town I'm staying in (I'm with a friend who lives on Hawks Ave., just a block from the area where the drug deals & streetwalking go down). The rest of the city is fortunately a good deal nicer, & with the moderate temperatures lately it's been nice just walking about the city, not to mention taking the ferry taxis down the water (far more efficient than car or bus). Dragon boat races a few days back for the Chinese holiday, even.

So: a quick rundown of things so far, from memory (haven't got my notes to hand or a schedule).

UK saxophonist John Butcher with German-born, Vancouver-resident Torsten Müller on bass, Dylan van der Schyff on drums (discovered from the MC it's a long vowel in Dylan's last name by the way not a short "i"--more like "Schaeff"). They have a terrific disc out on Drip Audio, the savvy West Coast label, which shows John I think swerving away from the ultra-stripped-down e.a.i. style of much of his recent work to something sorta jazzy even (it's called Way Out Northwest in homage to Sonny Rollins--no direct allusions but it's got a similar sense of the jazz trio as a kind of pocket fantasia). John is one of those players who has defined his area of concern & his stylistic trademarks, but is quite capable of responding to a specific occasion like this with stuff that he really has never played before--in this case some cool, intense trilling bits for instance, & some very fast & knotty runs.

Barry Guy/Maya Homburger, a duo including some Biber mystery sonatas & some pieces of Barry's, plus a sonata by a composer I don't know, Castello, & the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Wonderful stuff. If you want to really hear something scary & violent don't go to some moron with a guitar & a stack of amps & pedals, go to Barry when he's pulling out his serrated wooden bow--it makes you feel like the world's fabric is tearing in half.

I missed much of the Benoit Delbecq/François Houle/Evan Parker trio due to the poor service at The Foundation, a mediocre self-righteous vegetarian restaurant that somehow I've ended up at twice this trip so far & hope I won't see the inside of again. (It was enough to make me want to rant like Anthony Bourdain....) Anyway, what I heard of it was very attractive, rather edgeless & murmurous & overlapping. Hard to get a handle on it given that I only caught two bits of it between the late start & a duck midway through into the bathroom.

Atomic/School Days--basically a bunch of Swedes plus Ken Vandermark & Jeb Bishop. Didn't hate this, was sleepy for most of it but couldn't tell whether that was the timezone difference or that it was dull. I liked the soloists, notably Håvard Wiik on piano, Fred Ljundkvist on tenor sax & Kjell Nordeson on vibes, but the arrangements & tunes struck me as kind of formulaic & episodic--there's only so often that you can drop from a machine-tooled groove to a freeform episode until it doesn't sound like a jarring juxtaposition but simply an irritating ball-and-socket approach to construction.

Houle/Ljundkvist/Tommy Babin (bass)/Raymond Strid (drums)/Schyff--an improvised set, tremendous stuff. I hadn't actually been aware Strid was such a swingin' drummer. Free to freebop, with Ljundkvist mostly on clarinet, visually & auditorially it was like he was engaged in a lightsaber duel with Houle.

Delbecq/Quatuor Bozzini--nice quiet chamber improv, not much surprise really in that it seemed to keep within the territory set out quite comfortably, so if you liked scritch scratch plink stuff it was fine. I guess I like something a little more generically freeform & risky like the quintet above. The string quartet also played a concert on their own a few days later but I missed it, I was eating an oysterburger with some friends.

Ig Henneman/Ab Baars/Ingebrigt Haker Flaten (bass)/Paal Nilsson-Love. Weird grouping--whose idea was it? Totally improvised, & it conformed to my impression that Ig & Ab are most of the time a bit dorky-sounding, maybe it's just the glasses..... I loved Ab's Ellington album & have basically not got much out of most of the rest that I've heard. The Swedes injected some much-needed vim into proceedings. Not bad, just "so what"tish, & it was the kind of improv where they seem to stick with an idea for a LONG time without bothering to really transform it--the developments inch along cautiously like a caterpillar when I wanted them just to tear it apart & feed more stuff into the music.

Free Fall, which was prefaced by Vandermark with a typical snark about a stupid jazz critic who complained about the band's "poor version of Jimmy Giuffre's music" when, in fact, they play originals (but have the same clarinet/piano/bass instrumentation). Anyway, it DIDN'T sound like Giuffre, which is fine by me, & was actually pretty darn good (I'm speaking as someone who basically hates or is indifferent to everything of KVDM's he's heard). Wiik is amazing, & Vandermark actually sounded OK, mostly on bass clarinet; the deliberately pithy improvs on clarinet were a nice corrective to the longwinded improv that's the norm at this festival.

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Barry Guy/Maya Homburger, a duo including some Biber mystery sonatas & some pieces of Barry's, plus a sonata by a composer I don't know, Castello, & the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Wonderful stuff. If you want to really hear something scary & violent don't go to some moron with a guitar & a stack of amps & pedals, go to Barry when he's pulling out his serrated wooden bow--it makes you feel like the world's fabric is tearing in half.

I was at that concert. Great stuff, particularly Biber's Sonata 10. Would love to see Guy's New Orchestra again, but my small baby tends to perform around the same time.

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OK, more quick hits.

Michael Blake, two different groups, one Vancouver-based, one Danish, both pretty good. Some serious feedback probs & Blake's awkward between-song patter were small minuses, but I thought it was a very successful merger of smart modern jazz (often with very complex quasi-canonic partwriting) with free playing, in a way that didn't just feel like the latter was "for effect" (in the way that the crunch of machine-tooled grooves & free play felt to me in the Atomic/School Days gig). Kresten Osgood was particularly sharp on drums on the Danish half.

An improv session at the Ironworks with two "teams" of Swedish & Canadian players, in various formations. Good, let-the-hair-down improv, often a lot more enjoyable than the more formal kind because no-one's worried about shaping it into some kind of quasi-formality or quashing an idea in the name of the greater good. Mats Gustafsson's enormous range from tiny squiggles to world-destroying roar was put to good use, & a drum-violin duet between Jesse Zubot & Strid was great fun, kinda catching Jesse by surprise (we were in mid conversation when he was suddenly called on!).

Two duets at the Performance Works space were extraordinary, & I was in both cases pleasantly surprised how much more jazz-oriented they were than I'd anticipated from all the preceding abstractions. Broo/Nilsson-Love were very much drawing on a swing-to-bop bag, with Broo doing some great Harry James stuff & bebop skywriting (you can tell I'm drafting some clever phrases for my review) & Nilsson-Love showing how very precise & clear he is as a player. In fact often it felt like it was two duets--Broo & Nilsson-Love, & Nilsson-Love's own dialogue between different parts of the kit, the polyphony was that clearly delineated. Houle & Wiik were extraordinary too, starting in a Giuffresque bag & eventually ending up in Gabarek territory--I thought there was a RULE against having a definite key in free improv! :)

Bishop/Müller/v.d.Schyff. Solid, enjoyable improv that didn't really leave a big impression on me.

Double bill of the biggies in the evening. Evan Parker opened (yeah, I felt kinda queasy about EP being the opener for KVDM..... hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm) with Agusti Fernandez, piano + Guy + Lytton. You know, like many free jazz nuts & jazz critics I've been rather dubious about the way Parker's music has become set in stone in the past few years (decades?). & he didn't do anything new here. & yet....

[more to add on EP &c--I have to go now]

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[continued] and yet I'm not sure it really matters. Seeing him live again after long while it struck me that Parker's is some of the loneliest music I've heard, even within an ensemble. It's not that he's ignoring other players (definitely not), more a reflection of the endlessly self-communing nature of the music & the way it never seems to be enough (note those fingers flicking over the keypads even when he's not playing a note). Anyway, a great set, with the group moving confidently between various subset combinations. Close to sublime, in fact.

The Thing with Vandermark. This clawed back all the goodwill I'd accumulated from Free Fall. Thudding shock & awe free jazz. I fell asleep for most of the 2nd long piece/medley out of sheer boredom.

(things out of chronological order--haven't got the programme to hand)

Lisa Miller/edgeeffects: Miller's CD Q was OK but this was really, really terrible despite some good players in the band (Ron Samworth, Jesse Zubot). Quite earnest but a little dorky & the compositions were the kind that don't "develop" a theme so much as nail it down over & over ("I'm Mad" in particular, the last piece I stuck out), & in a festival where there are many pianists with highly refined inside-piano/prepared-piano techniques Miller seemed a little clueless with her approach (put a dinnerplate on the strings & rattle away). Sounded like the group was ill-rehearsed too judging by the way everyone seemed wrapped up in the scores.

Barry Guy New Orchestra--two nights. First night was a little mixed: a terrific first set of Fernandez & Gustafsson in duo, often so quiet it got into Marcel Marceau territory. Then a couple of pieces by bandmembers--Evan Parker's "Vosteen" was essentially just a page-long list of cues for people to start playing, with a little light guidance as to what to play, so it was essentially a free improv for the band. A Herb Robertson piece was apparently just rehearsed for the first time earlier that day & probably could use a little more seasoning in performance, but there were some good bits towards the end, & it was intriguing to hear the BGNO touch on more jazz-oriented territory at times. The next day started with a free improvisation that built from a brass trio to a storming Evan/Barry duo to the full band--I've always thought of BGNO as Barry's more strictly free-improv/modern-classical ensemble vs. the LJCO's more jazzy feel with guys like Riley, Watts & Picard in the band, but listening to the band here made me think that actually it DOES feel almost Ellingtonian in the way that it's a genuine entity made out of the congenial tug of war between strong personalities, & the very lively sense of ensemble interplay. Afterwards, the long piece "Oort-Entropy", which was pretty darn impressive in this form (I'd found the CD version OK but not entirely stirring). Evan's solo at the start of part 2 was one of the purest things he's done--I mean, it was almost straight melody (but improvised), without that murmuring melancholy tinge that you usualyl get when he goes into that zone--more like a Konitzian pure melody.

Steamboat Switzerland (believe that was the name, will check)--piano trio that basically does for hardcore what the Bad Plus do for modern pop. Not sure if there were actual covers in there, hard to know, but there was certainly a lot of sheet music about, which was kind of bizarre given teh overdriven mayhem of the auditory experience. Pity Phil Freeman or Jason Bivins weren't around, I would have been curious what they'd have made of it all. Definitely a Not My Cup of Tea performance but I didn't hate it--good to get pushed outside one's comfort zone sometimes. I left halfway through, though, as I thought it would be foolish to blow out my ears (it was VERY loud & they were starting to get very feedbacky).

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Nate - absolutely intrigued by your discussions of the Parker/Fernandez/Guy/Lytton. As sidenote - as you say, it's far from that he's not listening to other players - my sensation is that I don't think I've ever played with anyone with such an uncanny ability to hear absolutely everything you do! He has simply incredible ears.

Also - must check out the BGNO. Haven't heard them, but that write-up is enough to sell it to anyone!

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Hey, didn't know you were out here--do say hi if you're at any concert in the future. I'm not hard to spot--look for a tall guy in his 30s with a media pass (unless it's a free concert when I don't need it), with a big black bag on a shoulderstrap.

I'll try to see Tim Berne, though it's tough getting out when you have an eight-month-old.

Have you been to any of the concerts at the Centre? There you will witness a strange Vancouver phenomenon—someone once called it "the running ovation"—where audience members start fleeing during the pre-encore applause and even 2/3s of the way through a show.

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The Thing with Vandermark. This clawed back all the goodwill I'd accumulated from Free Fall. Thudding shock & awe free jazz. I fell asleep for most of the 2nd long piece/medley out of sheer boredom.

Gustafson plays here almost every year. I generally like him, but when he and Vandermark team up, they go off on this pointless 'father, son, holy ghost, been there, done that' shtick, kind of like free jazz's answer to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

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Centre? which venue's that? certainly seen a fair number of walkouts, though pretty good attendance on the whole for some fairly tough concerts. Though people fled the Lisa Miller thing in droves.

Today was a pretty satisfying one all round: it was:

1) Harris Eisenstadt Vancouver Quartet--with Sarah Schoenbeck on bassoon (his wife/girlfriend/whatever), Houle & Babin. Clearly the result of pretty minimal rehearsal but Harris was good at getting the most out of the situation--the tunes were straightforward, mostly a page of MS paper, with some really neat quirky grooves for the band to chew on (Red will know one of them well, "Convergence"). The concert started out with them feeling things out but by the time they hit the tune "Vancouver" things were cooking & I genuinely regretted that there wasn't a 2nd set. Harris's ability to be graceful in his time feel & commentaries rather than sounding like some percussion demon was much appreciated, & his hookup with Schoenbeck was terrific. This was a band that could well get really great with some more gigs.

2) Peggy Lee Band--this was streets ahead of the Spool disc of hers I heard. They basically played the album, a new one on Drip Audio (officially only released in the fall but already available for sale). A slightly dodgy start, with Brad Turner encountering some problems with his trumpet on the opening solo on a Bob Dylan cover, but after that things got better & better. The charts were full of melting, intricate harmonies over some seriously rocking grooves, & the set ended with a glorious version of "Lost in the Stars". Tony Wilson took top honours for a surprisingly straightahead, soulful jazz-guitar solo on one piece.

3) Carla Kihlstedt + Satoko Fujii. Amazing violin/piano duos--none of that free improv fussing around, this was completely improvised but really direct & to the point. When one player stated an idea she stated it, she didn't diffuse it in elaborations or fiddle with it in hopes of making something happen--it's like she was setting it in the right place & then coming up with something contrasting for the next moment. The chops & empathy were remarkable--there was one piece that had a kind of Hebraic modal thing going on, then they overlaid a unison line of triplets veering up & down the instruments that was so tight it might as well have been written out.

4) Tony Wilson 6tet..... or actually 5tet, as the saxophonist was absent (I wasn't that sad, as on the CD he's a bit to close to Naked City period John Zorn for my tastes). Indeed in general (and despite the serious gear trouble--Skye Brooks broke the hi-hat on the first tune & Tony contended with a loud buzz from his guitar) I thoguht this smoked the CD--the latter's excellent, but the best stuff here happened when they really veered from the pieces & went into some other territory, like the drum feature for Brooks on one tune or the powerhouse Wilson/Brooks assault on "I Am the Walrus". Great stuff.

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1) Harris Eisenstadt Vancouver Quartet--with Sarah Schoenbeck on bassoon (his wife/girlfriend/whatever), Houle & Babin. Clearly the result of pretty minimal rehearsal but Harris was good at getting the most out of the situation--the tunes were straightforward, mostly a page of MS paper, with some really neat quirky grooves for the band to chew on (Red will know one of them well, "Convergence"). The concert started out with them feeling things out but by the time they hit the tune "Vancouver" things were cooking & I genuinely regretted that there wasn't a 2nd set. Harris's ability to be graceful in his time feel & commentaries rather than sounding like some percussion demon was much appreciated, & his hookup with Schoenbeck was terrific. This was a band that could well get really great with some more gigs.

I was meaning to ask if you caught any of Harris' gigs! Do say hi if you see him. I'd love to hear them do 'Convergence' - that groove is such a beautiful one to play on. Harris has a real gift for making otherwise complex rhythms sound very natural and flowing/swinging/whatever. Another great example is the last tune on his 'Ahmisa' big band CD.

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Here is some info about the Centre:

http://www.coastaljazz.ca/index.cfm?page_i...amp;venue_id=92

I saw Brad Mehldau Trio there 2 days ago, and while there where some people walking out at the end of the show, the rest of us were awarded two encores in exchange of the standing ovations that went on for minutes.

It was a 'short' set, only six songs, but including the encores, the show was about 90 minutes long. My first time seeing Mehldau, it was quite interesting and slightly annoying for exactly the some reason (deconstructivism), but a satisfying experience overall. My wife enjoyed it too (especially the second encore - Exit Music by Radiohead); my 13 years old son not so much...

Stefan

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