1999 duMaurier International Jazz Festival Vancouver

Words & Photography ©Laurence Svirchev

In the 14 year saga of the duMaurier International Jazz Festival Vancouver, two major trends have now consolidated themselves. Vancouver possesses a cadre of musicians who regularly sit in with the best of international improvisers. In this year’s performances these Vancouver musicians demonstrated they can lead and co-lead such ensembles at advanced musical levels.

Pianist Paul Plimley has long had this stature, and the list now includes cellist Peggy Lee, clarinettist François Houle and percussionist Dylan van der Schyff. Some B.C. artists, Diana Krall for one, have chosen to take the standards road to stardom and moved to the United States. Plimley and other creators of the future of music have chosen a different path, nurturing their careers while keeping their homes in BC.

Secondly, an educated, sophisticated audience exists to hear and support these BC musicians and their co-adventurers from abroad. The Vancouver festival not only populates the major theatres throughout the city, but also free performance spaces on Granville Island and in David Lam Park. In former years, the non-paying public may have squirmeed in their chairs upon hearing an unfamiliar musical language. Now they stay and listen hard. They don’t just politely applaud at performances of improvised music, they often cheer.

The Vancouver festival included a hefty dose of the blues, straight jazz, and headliners like Pat Metheny and Brazilian Caetano Veloso. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra performed their Duke Ellington Cotton Club Revue. Joe Lovano played plenty of horn with bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Idris Muhammad. Roy Haynes had some hard luck: his pianist played with a broken right arm and the bass player got lost in airport hyper-space and never made the gig. There was dancing at the clubs and restaurant jazz throughout the city. There’s something for everyone at the Vancouver festival, and for this critic that something was the relationships among Vancouver improvisers and their international peers.

The Peggy Lee Band (Brad Turner, trumpet; Jeremy Berman, trombone; Tony Wilson, guitars; Chris Tarry, bass; Dylan van der Schyff) opened one of the free venues, Performance Works. Her compositions “Message to Little Shoe” and “Under the Dock” were marked by deep emotional feelings through the use of held-tones from trombone and trumpet, and bowed solos from Ms. Lee. Her other compositions freely use combinations of groove and open-ended improvisation. Among her many other gigs, Peggy Lee also played in the string section of the Vinny Golia Ensemble.

The name Vinny Golia Large Ensemble might be an underestimation. “Monster Ensemble” is more like it: the size (26 musicians, brass, woodwind, percussion, string sections and conductors), calibre of musicianship, and Golia’s compositional power imbue it with an unsurpassed authority to create multiple colours, moods, and tempi. This band makes tsunami music: tremendous waves of crescendo, high specific gravity, and relentless long-distance momentum.

In “Push The Machine” Peggy Lee began with an extended improvised solo, playing arco below the cello bridge, simultaneously plucking above the bridge with her left hand. After a string section bridge began a long arc of sopranino solo (Steve Adams), interplay among the bass (Ken Filiano), tuba (Bill Roper), and marimba (David Johnson), and a strich solo (Golia), all culminating in a multi-layered entry of the ensemble for the main theme. During each section of the 25 minute composition when there is a solo, various divisions, and sometimes the whole orchestra, will push in various directions at different tempi. The ensemble premiered ten compositions in Vancouver. The musical colour complexities of the performance made the three hour concert one of the most satisfying of the Festival.

In contrast to the sheer stage-occupying volume of the Large Ensemble were numerous trios and quartets. Artistic Director Ken Pickering likes to give individual musicians plenty of work and the audience a chance to hear a favourite player in multiple contexts. (When bassist William Parker finished his ump-teenth gig, he was heard to jokingly remark, “Hey Ken, how about a few more gigs next time!”).

Paul Plimley worked in four different improvising trios. One of his encounters was with bassist William Parker and drummer Gerry Hemingway. They played an unbroken 50 minute improvised set at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, feeling their way into the music delicately with light splashes of cymbals, low-volume piano runs, and arco scratching of the bass. The introduction ended with a moment of silence and William Parker began a melodic arco line in the cello range of his instrument, a repeating vamp suggesting the mysteries of a moonless night in a featureless land. Hemingway combined punctuations to the toms with continuing light touches to the ride cymbal with Plimley playing melodically in block chords and occasional arpeggios. One felt they were latter-day Sharazads, beginning a cycle of fascinating stories that would last a thousand nights.

Plimley also worked with drummer Han Bennink and bassist Matt Cohen. Even for a gig where surprises are supposed to happen, Plimley did the completely unexpected. He reverted to ancient, 50-70 year old jazz technique (stride) and composition (Ray Noble’s “Cherokee”). Those who have been listening to Plimley for years were completely flummoxed: no one could remember having never heard him play that way before.

Perhaps he made his musical choices because Cohen acted as a melodic mediator between the pianist and drummer. Bennink is the ultimate irrepressible, a card far wilder than Plimley. One cannot work against Bennink or change his mind. He is a Muhammed Ali of the kit, floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee. Plimley knows that Bennink’s heroes include Baby Dodds and Kenny Clarke. So perhaps the re-playing of what has already been done confirmed the debt to past creators and affirmed what needs to be done.

Another surprise was Thirteen Ways. The enigmatically-named group is Fred Hersch, reedist Michael Moore, and drummer Gerry Hemingway. The misterioso name comes from Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” They rendered the music as a series of meditative solos, duos, and trios, as haiku as the poem itself. The Thirteen Ways touch of hands and blowing of breath is light and subtle. They make music that impels one to breathe softly, focuses the inner vision to sharpness, and compels the ear adjust to intervals of nuance and silence.

François Houle played in several small-group contexts, the first being a collaboration with a String Quartet with Ig Henneman, Mary Oliver, Peggy Lee, and Barre Phillips. Houle commissioned BC musicians Tony Wilson and Ron Samworth to compose the music. The result was a beautiful combination of classic and free- improvisation.

But most of Houle’s work this year was with electro-acoustical groups. Take the Western Front concert with Steve Arguëlles and Benoît Delbecq. Nominally speaking, their instruments are clarinet, drums, and piano. But the musicians are also wired to each other electronically: Delbecq has a casio and analog bass synthesiser and prepares the piano with twigs inserted into the strings at the treble end; Arguëlles has a delay unit and synthesiser; Houle has a digital loop and delay unit. They can record, bend, distort, change the pitch of each other’s sounds and play them back, or just play straight.

The ability to change another musician’s work in concert and re-play it as a filtered remembrance requires extraordinary skill and mutual trust. These musicians are not just connected with copper wire, they seem to have neural connections that sympathetically synapse. To the western-tuned ear, the music feels unearthly: the basic temperament of the piano is changed and Arguëlles builds layers of rhythm from the three instruments that modulates the results.

And while Houle can do the same, he also plays two clarinets simultaneously or colour the sound with bass clarinet. He also can break his horns into sections, perhaps not even using the reed, but blowing as if through a flute.

The music becomes an electro-acoustical equivalent of the trance musics found in the geographical borders between eastern and western civilisations. If there is one disadvantage to this music, it is visual. Watching the musicians manipulate slider switches detracts from the music experience. Yet if one occasionally opens the eyes, they may see the Delbecq, Arguëlles, and Houle with their hands not even touching the instruments. They are smiling at each other, perhaps astounded at the beautiful sounds enounced from the loops they have created.

And Dylan van der Schyff? He was ubiquitous, working in quartet with American trumpeter Dave Douglas, French reedist Louis Sclavis, and Peggy Lee, with Vancouver cult band Talking Pictures, with violinist Evind Kang and François Houle, Dutch reedist Tobias Delius, and the Brad Turner Quintet.

Primarily, van der Schyff is neither soloist nor time-keeper. He is a rhythm colourist, and different hues require frequency responses. He may work the rims with sticks, switch rapidly over to hand-drumming, and then wet a thumb and run it over a drum head. His effects are always musically synergistic. He is that rarest of drummers: his composure is entirely invested in making sublime music with the musicians surrounding him.

Dylan van der Schyff’s investment in making music was common throughout the ten days and eleven nights of the duMaurier international Jazz Festival Vancouver. From festival staff right down to back-stage volunteers, one could sense a pulsing urge to make the event entirely successful. One could often hear this success translated in the backstage comments of musicians after their concert: “What an audience, they were really listening!”

Originally appeared in Planet Jazz, Montréal, Fall 1999

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