Friday, June 29, 2007

Vancouver Day Five and Out

My last day in Vancouver was full! I moved from a long lunch with one of my oldest friends to dinner with fellow DownBeat critic Greg Buium to a very satisfying -- and exceptionally well-mic'ed -- set by The Bad Plus. By then I was sated, and ready to find an outdoor cafe to settle into the soft Pacific air with a copy of David Lee's new book on Ornette Coleman.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Vancouver Day Four

One of the most enjoyable parts of any jazz festival is hanging out between shows with fans, listening to them talk about music and musicians. You get a feeling for the draw of various festivals, for one thing. Tonight, between shows by a pair of superior trumpet quartets -- led by Jens Winther and Brad Turner respectively -- I met a guy who travelled all the way from Regina for the festival. You also get a feel for the quality of the local fans, just like you can for fans of hockey or baseball by how well they grasp the nuances of the game. Last night, I overheard two guys discussing how the Vancouver festival has changed drum suppliers. Now that's nuance!

And when jazz journalists aren't hanging at concerts, they can usually be found schmoozing. There's never any shortage of that in Vancouver, thanks to the great hospitality of festival co-founder and media guru John Orysik. Here's our host (right) with Larry Appelbaum, JazzTimes and the Library of Congress, (left), yours truly, and fellow DownBeat critic Greg Buium, who was covering the Vancouver fest for the Globe and Mail newspaper.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Vancouver Day Three

Such is the spectrum of life in Vancouver that in a single day one can move easily between the deck of a multi-million dollar house with a spectacular view of the city and a torturous folding chair inside the elegantly distressed "Cultch."

I have to thank my old friend Peter Grainger for the entree into the view of how the top one percent of Canadian income earners live, and Danish guitarist Pierre Dorge for a show that encapsulated everything the Vancouver jazz festival represents: humour, adventure, a world view, and what can only be termed spirituality through music. Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra travels contrasting worlds rapidly too, swinging easily between the blues and South African township jive.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Vancouver Day Two, Part Two

How do you tell when a show's really good? Even the drum solo works.

Bad drummer jokes aside, tonight's Sten Sandell show with guest John Butcher was really first rate: one long, textured piece that climaxed with a rumbling solo by Paal Nilssen-Love, and a shorter one that was equally interesting.

That was the opener for an explosive set by Cuong Vu's regular trio. Vu had originally planned to split his set between songs from his last album, It's Mostly Residual, and a couple of new pieces he's about to record in Mexico City, but after the first of the two new ones he apologized that he was "out of gas" because of a lack of recent practice. A refreshing admission when he might just as easily faked his way through it.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Vancouver Day Two

I've written before that Vancouver's festival is somewhat unique in that it is a number of festivals within a festival; you could spend an unmatched 10 days just hanging out at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, the Commodore Ballroom, the Orpheum, or any combination of about a dozen key venues. Size is also an important factor in how good this festival is. As excellent as the Montreal festival can be, I have never been drawn to joining 10,000 people trying to hear a free show on Ste. Catherine Street, and pushing through the mob -- which can range up to 100,000 depending on what's going on can really be crazy (gee, can't wait 'til I'm there again next week). Here, the scale makes more sense. This is the first time that I've been at the Vancouver festival during opening weekend, when free shows are held in the main tourist area of Gastown. I was pleasantly surprised to find small stages, especially a really nice one erected at the bottom of a natural, grass-covered amphitheatre (shades of the old Ottawa jazz fest in the days when I was involved with it). It that respect, it reminds me of the San Jose jazz festival, one of my favourites and a sadly under-rated one.

Vancouver Day 1

I flew to Vancouver early yesterday morning for the start of the jazz festival. Always a treat coming to my favourite city for what many consider to be the best-programmed festival in North America.

Jet lag took the edge off my enjoyment of Aki Takase's Fats Waller Project -- with Rudi Mahall, Eugene Chadbourne, Nils Wogram and Paul Lovens -- but it was a terrific, energetic and humour-filled show. I've never been a huge fan of Chadbourne's, but he fits well into this band, bringing some of Waller's nonsensical manic energy. Lovens is the perfect drummer for this, too; just a powerhouse, but never too loud.

The show, at the funky Vancouver East Cultural Centre, began with a set of duets between Takase and Mahall, which illustrated their great rapport. They both have a great sense of the absurd, and both the music and between-song banter between them was filled with humour. To say nothing of the fact that their both among the best technicians on their instruments.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Avant-Garde Economics

A couple of years ago, guitarist Marc Ribot wrote an essay about the dark future he saw for music that lives on the margins of popular taste.

Now, he’s re-positioned his thesis against the backdrop of the death of the Lower Manhattan club Tonic and the general shrinking of commercial fortunes for improvised music. He makes a particularly cogent argument for how socially/culturally conscious European countries have supported the avant-garde movement in New York City.

Very interesting, if somewhat depressing, reading.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hot Enough to Melt a Plastic Saxophone

Scary news about Ornette Coleman, who collapsed during a set by his band at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. The temperature at the outdoor venue was close to 100 degrees, and Coleman, 77, was reported to be suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion. After receiving some water, he was helped from the stage.

While it’s great to see Ornette getting a venue to reach a younger generation again – as he did with Prime Time in the ‘80s – you’d think festival organizers would make provisions to take better care of their aging stars. How about installing some of those cool-air mist machines they use on the sideline at NFL games?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A '90s List

Destination: Out just published the results of a poll of musicians and journalists to determine their favourite recordings from the 1990s. Looking back, it was a pretty good decade for improvised music. For most of the decade I was reviewing for a daily newspaper as well as DownBeat, Coda and a handful of other magazines, so I listened to a lot of music critically. This list brings back some fond memories. Be sure to check out the site because there is a ton of related and supporting material, including the individual ballots of some people like Gary Giddins.

Here are the top vote getters:

1 Sonny Sharrock, Ask the Ages - 9 mentions
2 Anthony Braxton, Willisau (Quartet) 1991 - 6
3 Ornette Coleman, Tone Dialing - 5
Henry Threadgill, Too Much Sugar for a Dime - 5
4 Charles Gayle, Touchin’ on Trane - 4
5 Ornette Coleman, Sound Museum: Hidden Man - 3
Bill Dixon, Vade Mecum I/II - 3
Dave Douglas, Constellations - 3
Bill Frisell, This Land - 3
David Murray, Shakill’s Warrior - 3
Maria Schneider, Evanessance - 3
David S. Ware, Flight of I - 3
David S. Ware, Go See the World - 3

Monday, June 11, 2007

Festival Funk

Is it time for a new model for jazz festivals?

That question came up this weekend when I was going over a couple of schedules for upcoming events with a friend who I frequently hang with at these things. There’s little doubt about the validity of George Wein’s original idea: essentially, bring together a bunch of musicians on the same stage to get fans out of the hot city and dark "jazz basements" for a couple or three days. More than 50 years later there’s still few things better than lounging outdoors while great music wafts through the air.

But increasingly, festivals have ballooned up to 10 days (two prime weekends) and added layers of programming on side stages and at satellite sites. At some events – Montreal comes to mind above all others – scheduling can prove to be a major headache, as you rush between sites trying to hear everything you want to catch, or worse, miss things. Even when festivals lay things end to end, a few days at one of these events can leave you wrung out and struggling to recall just what you heard. (Back when I was something of a jazz journalism martyr I tried filing more than a dozen stories from a 10-day festival. By the end, I felt like I might explode if I heard one more Monk tune.)

These days I try to take a longer view in festival coverage, but I have the advantage of doing this for fun and profit. What about the average fan? Does the model still work for him or her as festivals increasingly push package deals (“passports”) as a way of maximizing attendance?

I don’t think I’m just being jaded when I look at most festival schedules now and start humming Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”. There just doesn’t seem to be much creativity in the programming these days at most festivals. Often, it seems to be programming by rote – Who’s on the road? What are the other festivals doing? – without much outreach from artistic director to musician. The result for the jazz fan is akin to surveying a large-but-boring buffet table.

A musical form as creative as jazz deserves a business model that’s equally creative. It’s time for someone to come up with something as innovative and popular as Wein’s Newport model.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Art Of Jazz

Not sure whether it was the hotel connection or Blogspot, but I haven't been able to connect since I got to Toronto for the Art of Jazz festival on Friday.

Terrific shows by a Kenny Wheeler sextet with Norma Winstone, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, Don Thompson and Joe LaBarbera, a Konitz trio with LaBarbera and Toronto bassist Kieran Overs, and a special Carla Bley/Steve Swallow big band with a handful of Toronto's top players (including festival co-organizer Jane Bunnett, Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke) and some Bley standbys like Gary Valente and Howard Johnson.

The Wheeler show was in the funky -- and cavernous -- old distilling building that is one of the centrepieces of Toronto's historic Distillery District. He was in better form than is often the case these years, and Winstone proved again that she is the ideal partner for him, transforming a number of his melancholy melodies into touching songs of love and regret. Any band with Holland on bass is interesting, and he was just a pillar of strength on this gig.

Saturday morning featured a Q&A session with Bley and Swallow, which despite being in a less than hospitable outdoor setting, provided some illuminating insights into their working processes.

It was a hot, humid day, and the outdoor site was baking by mid-afternoon's gig with Konitz, but his set was a relaxing series of standards and originals that allowed the leader to show his unique voice and mastery of the alto sax.

What to say about Bley's music? Just that it is a rich palette that allows players of this calibre to sound like themselves while building taut, dynamic performance pieces.

It was an exciting weekend in Toronto, with the gala opening of Daniel Libeskind's new addition to the Royal Ontario Museum and a number of events associated with the premiere of the Luminato festival, and Art of Jazz -- now in its second year -- added some high-profile improvised music to the mix.