Great City, a Great City's Music

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival

by Will Layman

3 September 2009

Photos: Will Layman 

Big Names in Big Venues

Enrico Rava

Enrico Rava

Big Names in Big Venues

Vancouver is a wonderfully local city—a place with a keen identity as Canadian, as being in British Columbia, and as being coastal and on the Pacific rim—but it is also a place that quickly reaches for the Big Time. The diversity of the people on the streets reminds you, in every moment, that Vancouver has global attraction, yet it is also true that I was able to spend a full week in the city attending the complete breadth of festival events without once setting foot in a motor vehicle after arriving from the airport.

So, for every hip local show I attended, there was a matching show in a larger venue that would draw fans from any city on name recognition alone. The TD Canada Trust Vancouver Jazz Festival did not lack for stars.


Sonny Rollins

The glorious Orpheum Theater, normally host to the city’s Symphony Orchestra, was home to the most legendary living jazz musician. The hall itself seemed to reflect the majesty of the Saxophone Colossus: ornate, guilded in gold, well-maintained, and resonant. Sonny Rollins will be 80 in a year, and his aches and pains were clear as he moved around the Orpheum stage, but he still worked the tenor saxophone with fluid aplomb. In the first of his patented cadenzas—on “My One and Only Love”—Rollins quoted generously from the old tune “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”, a good notion of how the master sees himself despite the years.

Sonny appeared with his guitar trio (Bobby Broom on guitar, Bob Cranshaw still on electric bass, Cole Watkins on drums) plus percussion (Sammy Figueroa) and trombone (Clifton Anderson). As is so often noted by other critics, the band seemed a couple levels less wonderful than the leader. On the evening’s obligatory calypso, only Rollins who ventured beyond the chords, breaking the dynamic sameness of the performance. Still, the man’s sound seems less gruff than in recent years, more limber. He slays you. The entire audience gave him a standing ovation—before he even played one note.

Jimmy Cobb and the Kind of Blue Band

At the beautiful Center for the Performing Arts, several shows blew the roof off things. Jimmy Cobb has been leading an all-star group recreating the music of Miles Davis’s classic Kind of Blue upon its 50th anniversary. This would seem to be the kind of thing that only sounds good on paper—after all, how could this long-revered music ever sound fresh again?

But after a couple of tunes it became clear that, as good as the classic solos of the 1959 record are, the masterpiece quality to KoB is its wide-open modal conception. And having these musicians—Wallace Roney on trumpet, Javon Jackson on tenor, Vincent Herring on alto, Larry Willis on piano, and John Webb on bass—allowed the music to reinvent itself. Roney always sounds somewhat like he is channeling Miles, but his solos in the Center were tart and puckish rather than just brooding. It made you want to hear more of his own music. And when Willis—amidst his “All Blues” solo—quoted from “Norwegian Wood, well, the music seemed more than fresh enough.

Pairing this band with the Canadian pianist (now based in New York) John Stetch was a fine choice. Stetch and his trio played generously from his recent collection of TV theme songs, TV Trio, reharmonizing classics like “Star Trek” and “Love Boat” in such a way that they seem to hold newly imagined gold. Kinda schticky, but fun.

The Monterey Quartet

The Monterey Quartet


The Monterey Quartet (Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Erik Harland) and The October Trio

This festival-born super-group was making a fresh tour of festivals, and their music came off as an exhibition of sorts—dramatic, polyrhythmic, explosive. While Holland handles the microphone and is the putative leader, the composing duties are fully shared, and it never feels like one of Holland’s usual groups; it is more polyrhythmic and plain. Chris Potter’s sound gets more Michael Brecker-ish every time I hear him: explosive and notey with a metallic wail in the upper register. But his tune, “Minotaur”, was complex and rhapsodic. Rubalcaba played snake-like solos at every turn, feeding the complex play of Harland’s feet. And while the grooving bass lines of Dave Holland anchored it all, it was the two polyrhymists who ultimately dominated.

Opening for Holland et al. was another Canadian group with a strong reach into the U.S. Last year The October Trio released a brilliant album on Songlines, adding the Vancouver trumpet player Brad Turner to their arrangements. At the Center, the quartet inhabited a place deliciously between the overt near-rock modernism of The Bad Plus or Medeski, Martin & Wood and the harmonic modernism of artists like Holland. Tune to tune, it was a brainy kind of pleasure—never obvious, but rocking enough that the whole hall was in these young guys’ hands. And it couldn’t have hurt that the Vancouver audience felt they hearing some hometown (or home-area) heroes.

Kurt Elling and Enrico Rava

The near-perfect sound at The Center was particularly well-suited to the elegant lyricism of both parts of this show. Enrico Rava, the impressionistic Italian trumpeter who also loves to play free, played in duet with his pianist Stefano Bollani. Bollani, if you don’t know him, is a playful athlete behind the keys: sneaker-clad, punching bass lines, shoulders levitating as he smiles. He plays like Keith Jarrett without the dour attitude, moving from stride to bop to rhapsodic indulgence, minute-to-minute. Rava stands to the side the piano, brooding and intense but ultimately synced with his partner. Rava is focused and intimate with the mic, but there is something antic about the pair as well, playing a fun “Cheek to Cheek” and going out dueling on Miles’s “The Theme”.

The second half featured the finest and most daring male vocalist in jazz, Kurt Elling. The evening was focused on Elling’s recreation—in partnership with his arranger and pianist Lawrence Hobgood—of the classic John Coltrane/Johnny Hartman session. The work succeeds because the pair has reconceived these classic tunes in critical ways, changing the harmonies and arrangements to make them more dynamic and modern but still capturing the sense of elegance and yearning that made the originals so compelling. To add saxophonic counterpoint, Elling has enlisted Ernie Watts to join the group, and his highwire act in the upper register on “You Are Too Beautiful” was smashing. The band played other tunes as well, opening with Joe Jackson’s “Steppin’ Out” and including an autobiographical variant on “Body and Soul” with words by Elling. As from the start of his career, Kurt Elling is a jazz singer who actually makes you realize that you must listen closely to the words.

Two Brilliant Pianists

The Center also featured a night of sterling pianism from Fred Hersch and Kenny Werner. Hersch’s trio was perfectly balanced, performing ballads that had intensity and swingers that were keen and smart. In one sequence, they started with an original, “The Black Dog Pays a Visit”, which featured a piano solo that combined lyricism and control in perfect balance. The band then segued into a reading of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman”, brilliantly harmonized, which in turn segued into “Nardis”

But Werner’s set was even more impressive. Leading a quintet (Randy Brecker on trumpet, David Sanchez on tenor sax, Scott Colley on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums: wow), Werner played much material from his great Lawn Chair Society album. Werner was funny and warm on the stage, making jazz seem fun and relevant at every turn. His composition “Eternal Heart”, written for his daughter, was sublime. “Inaugural Balls” (ha) was off-kilter fun, funky and dissonant, and his arrangement, oddly enough, of “Hedwig’s Theme” from the Harry Potter movies demonstrated how jazz musicians have always been able to reach into the culture and find gold.

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