Great City, a Great City's Music

The Vancouver International Jazz Festival

by Will Layman

3 September 2009

Photos: Will Layman 

Local Music as Good as the Best from Around the World

Peggy Lee Band

Peggy Lee Band

Local Music as Good as the Best from Around the World

The ultimate lesson of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival was simply this: Don’t forsake the local.

The two most extraordinary musical experiences of my week took me by surprise. It was a huge festival. Coastal Jazz, the non-profit group that produces the festival (and many other musical opportunities in Vancouver throughout the year) will be happy to tell you how big the festival is: 400 shows, 150 of them free, across ten days in 40 venues, featuring 1,800 musicians playing for a half-million fans. But of all that music, the cream came from just down the street.

I’d gotten to know the local musicians naturally because they were everywhere I turned. One afternoon I headed down to Tom Lee Music to hear Saul Berson, an alto player with a creative approach to the mainstream. Nice set, nice arrangement of “Willow Weep for Me”. But who was this guitarist, killing every solo and imagining accompaniments that deserved a much more significant forum?

Two hours later I was down on Granville Island again to catch the 3pm show at “Performance Works” by the Peggy Lee Band. (No kidding: before the show a woman asked me, “Did you know that she is still alive?”  I had to explain that this was not the singer but a “new music” cellist.)  Lee could be Vancouver’s best known creative musician, having played recently on major releases by both Dave Douglas and Wayne Horwitz. Her group turned out to be an octet, entirely local. On trumpet and flugelhorn, there was Brad Turner, the great melodist I had seen with The October Trio. Tuning up on guitar?  It was Ron Samworth, who I’d seen 24 hours earlier in the park. Wait, she’s got two guitar players?  And the second was the stunner from earlier in the day, a guy named Tony Wilson.

Lee’s music was unique but firmly within the tradition, pushing forward but aware of the past. A rich, layered sound often ringing in open harmonies, her music could be comforting and challenging too. The second tune of her set started with a duet between Wilson and drummer (and Lee husband) Dylan van der Schyff, a major guitar freak-out that stunningly resolved into a pastoral pedal-point with chiming guitars and a trombone wail like slide guitar. On the next tune, Wilson and Samworth played as if they were with Miles Davis in 1975, keeping things edgy even though there is a kind of Copland-ish space to Lee’s compositions. Brad Turner’s playing throughout could only be called luscious, and more and more it seemed that Peggy Lee is Canada’s answer to Carla Bley—a composer of magnificent gifts who rarely takes a solo in her own band.

This was brilliant music, I thought. I won’t hear anything better all week.

Then on my last day at the festival, I heard something almost as fine. I was spending the whole afternoon—the Fourth of July—around David Lam Park along the water, catching a Latin band on the huge outdoor stage, grabbing lunch, then wandering back to the partially outdoor Festival Hall, which has massive doors that open onto a town square of sorts. Walking around the edges of the Hall were Peggy Lee and Dylan van der Schyff with their two kids—just a local family here to dig some music, right?

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson

Up on the stage was guitarist Tony Wilson again, this time with his own group, a “5tet” made up of trumpet, violin and rhythm. Tony had devised his own solutions to the question of how to make modern jazz neither predictable nor forbidding. His tunes were atypical, melding into each other through various solo segues, and he was fruitfully shifting time signatures and textures. Free playing, ballads, swing, distortion and rock were all blended in arresting ways. Wah-wah trumpet and acoustic bass? Tony Wilson had five ways to have that make sense.

This kind of creativity is what passed for a Saturday afternoon’s free entertainment at the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

I left the city marveling not just at all that I’d heard but also at the many shows I’d missed: King Sunny Adé and his band for dancing, Derek Trucks jamming at The Center, a blazing trio of Myra Melford, Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson, another Tony Wilson group at The Ironworks that was, no doubt, something new.

There’d been other great moments I enjoyed in the cracks: a great bottle of wine on a restaurant balcony, jam sessions in the bar at my hotel, a Vietnamese lunch of fresh salad rolls, and a long walk around Stanley Park with a friend. Because with this jazz festival you get not only the music but also a charming town under the soles of your well-used shoes.

Will I be going back? Hey, I’ll see you next Canada Day on Granville Island.

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