Great City, a Great City's Music

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival

by Will Layman

3 September 2009

Our jazz critic Will Layman spent a full week soaking up the music -- and the city -- offered by what may be North America's finest jazz festival.
Photos: Will Layman 

Vancouver shoots into the waters of the Northwest, both bold and carefully protected. Vancouver Island, to the west, is a massive shield from the Pacific. Yet Downtown Vancouver—a small peninsula that leaks northwest from the bulk of Burrard Penninsula—has a hint of impudence about it. The heart of the city, a place of palm trees in the southeast corner of Canada, is surrounded by waves lapping against the shores of Stanley Park.

This mixture of comfort and adventure, protection and daring, is coded into the DNA of the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival. For ten days in late June and early July, the city hosts a music party that runs from mild to fiery, peaceful to mad, careful to reckless, terrific to purely sublime. For jazz lovers, it’s bliss. But it’s hard to imagine any music fan coming away less than dazzled.

Stunning Local Views, Breathtaking Local Music

Take a lazy afternoon walk down to Granville Island, for example, which sits just across False Creek from downtown. To get there I walked from my hotel (where most of the festival musicians were also staying) down Granville Street, dubbed for the original name of the city. The stroll takes you past the old vaudeville house, the Orpheum (1927) with its vintage vertical neon sign, the Vogue (to host The Decemberists and Neko Case later in the summer) and the Yale Hotel, with its deco awning and massive neon saxophone, then over the Granville Street Bridge. From the bridge, the marinas and beaches to the northwest along English Bay sparkle.

In no time you’re curling under the bridge to enter a small preserve that used to house various factories and machine shops but today hosts restaurants, galleries, an art school, a public market, a tiny brewery (and pub)—and several performance spaces. If you wandered down on the Monday afternoon of the festival, the outdoor Market Stage was featuring a bouquet of bouncy sambas, perfect for a gossamer summer day. The quartet is led by guitarist Yujiro Nakajima, originally from Nagano, Japan, and in Vancouver for four years, playing at the festival for the first time. Grab something to eat and pull up a chair in the sunshine. It is pleasantly crowded and loose.

Two days later, on Canada Day (July 1st), the Market Stage is humming again, this time with an even better group you’ve never heard of. The Quaint Hearted consist of three local guys from the city’s public Capilano University, and—incredibly—this is their first-ever gig. Which is almost impossible to believe because they sound like they utterly know what they are about, making “jazz” that strikes more like rock but bends like Miles Davis. “We started writing this music just a few months ago for this gig”, the drummer, Alexander Klassen, explains. Challenging, distorted, angular—yet the music has no trouble holding the interest of a large crowd.

Slide along the island to Ron Basford Park and a hillside of folks, many waving the Canadian flag, are enjoying a multicultural trio of Vancouverians: Ron Samworth on guitar, Lan Tung on erhu (a two-stringed Chinese violin), and Neelamjit Dhillon on tablas and alto saxophone. Their uncategorizable sound gives way to straight up blues several blocks away in Railspur Park, where Dalannah Gail Bowen is putting decades of experience into her bent tones and minor thirds.

The killer thing is: all this music is free. The Canadian dollar is currently worth less than the U.S. dollar, but free is a whole ‘nother kind of exchange rate.

Walking back toward the bridge at the close of one afternoon of this music, I was arrested by the skill and touch of one of the buskers that populate Granville Island. This is a lone jazz guitarist playing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” at a shady spot right along the water. But he is no ordinary street musician. He is playing the melody with easy swing while interspersing accompanying chords like the legendary Joe Pass. (Hearing him from a distance, I half-expected Ella Fitzgerald’s voice to surge into my ears.)  Like so many other folks in this truly international city, he turns out to be from another country—in this case, Germany. And he’s not just any guitarist but he is Guenter Schulz, formerly the primary guitarist and songwriter for the industrial rock band KMFDM. Known for crunching sound and all-out assaults, who would have imagined his Telecaster to be a delicate vehicle?  “But, sure, I love to play jazz”, he says, handing me his card.

Vancouver and the jazz festival it hosts are full of surprises even during the daytime.

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