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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Jazz Cellist Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’

The Peggy Lee Band
New Code
Drip Audio

Waiting for the show by The Peggy Lee Band to begin at Performance Works, a stunning space on Vancouver’s Granville Island this summer, a woman asked me, “Did you know that she was still alive?”

Oh, no.

This spectator at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival thought she was going to hear a woman well into her 80s singing “Fever”. “Actually,” I explained, “Peggy Lee the singer died about seven years ago. This ‘Peggy Lee’ plays the cello. Jazz cello. Sort of. A-and, uh, I don’t think there will be any singing.”

The woman crinkled her nose with concern. No singing?

Plenty of Singing, of a Sort

Peggy Lee, the cellist, is in fact all about singing, of a sort. Her playing—grounded in classical training at the University of Toronto, and a history of playing “new music” (the somewhat unfortunate moniker for contemporary classical music)—is supremely tuneful and sonorous. Though “new music”, like new jazz, can involve plenty of squeaks and scratches, Lee presents a lovely tone in most of her work. As a composer and arranger, she has a gift for melody.

At her festival show in July 2009, in what is now her hometown of Vancouver, she presented a string of compellingly tuneful compositions, capped by her arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars”. Her band, an octet when she can afford to get all the players together, handles the tune with gentle care. Trumpeter Brad Turner begins over quietly arpeggiated guitars, which gives way to a lovely chamber section for her cello and the three horns (Turner as well as trombone and tenor saxophone), under which electric bass plays lyrically and drummer Dylan van der Schiff (also Lee’s husband) colors with freedom.

Although the woman who hoped to hear “Fever” did not stay, she would have loved it.

A Vancouver Star

Lee is soft-spoken and incredibly modest, but she is arguably the most prominent improvising musician in the rich musical community around Vancouver. She has appeared on two brilliant recordings with the Wayne Horvitz “Gravitas Quartet”, and also with Dave Douglas on his “Mountain Passages” project. This past year, she also played on Alex Cline’s stunning Continuation.

Her success beyond the local scene may be due to her unique sound. Though she plays with a lyrical richness, she does not reuse the overtrod blues licks or standard bebop vocabulary that is the lingua franca or so many jazz players.

“I came to the so-called jazz tradition really late,” Lee explains. “I made a conscious decision not to get too down on myself for not being able to play bebop lines on the cello. I had a desire to improvise, knowing that what was going to work for me was to explore in whatever way was honest for me, so that I was not just memorized certain intervals and patterns.”

Lee, however, is much more than a player. Her primary calling, taken up relatively late in her musical education, is composing.

At the Vancouver Jazz Festival show, she had assembled a version of the octet she has been recording with for ten years, essentially an all-star band of the city’s creative music community. She features two guitarists, Tony Wilson and Ron Samworth, both of whom asked Lee to join their bands shortly after she arrived in Vancouver. In tandem, then can play lyrically and clean, they can get into rock or sliding blues modes, and they can create incredible textures that bring to mind the sonic waves of mid-’70s Miles Davis bands.

Her trumpeter is the exceptionally agile and sweet Brad Turner. “I loved Brad Turner’s playing, and he and Dylan have worked together in Brad’s quartet. With someone like Brad, I write a tune I would love to hear him improvise on but that I would not dare to improvise on myself, taking advantage of his deep harmonic knowledge and his melodic improvising.”

In the hour before the show, Lee sits in the middle of her group—horns section to her right, two electric guitars to her left, her husband behind her and electric bass off her flank, dishing out instruction and encouragement on the intricacies of her compositions.

“When I sit down to write a piece, I think, ‘Who do I want to hear explore their instrument on this piece and in what way?'” explains Lee, “The whole point of the group for me is writing to hear other people improvise, to create pieces that are inspired by the other musicians.” And so her tunes seem to fit around her chosen band with ease.

In rehearsal, the band played short snatches of the arrangements, followed by long choruses of heads nods and encouragement, laughs. In performance too, the band was loose but clean, producing an effect considerably similar to that of the Carla Bley Band, which also uses electric bass.

“I love her arrangements for the Liberation Music Orchestra”, says Lee. “I chose electric bass partly because of the cello, so that things would not get muddy in the lower end. I wanted a clean sound mixed in, some clarity.”

New Code, the Latest Recording

The most recent (and fourth) recording from the Peggy Lee Band is New Code, from late 2008. In it, there is plenty of the clarity she strives for, but also a healthy dose of freedom. Compositions such as “Walk Me Through” have a pastoral quality that contains whiffs of Gary Burton or Pat Metheny, while “No Wake Up Call” begins with cello and guitar wrestling with some knotty scratches and feedback, then turns into a squall that includes a rising wave of horns. The range of writing and playing makes the record challenging, perhaps, but the bulk of New Code sounds fresh and consonant.

It is not surprising to learn that Lee has recently starting writing for the theater, as much of New Code has a storytelling quality. “Floating Island” seems to carry your ear across a landscape of action, with van der Schyff’s drums and a patterned guitar rolling in waves under the misty melodies. Jeremy Berkman is exquisite on trombone, not playing like a “jazz” musician, but inventing with brilliance nevertheless. It is a reminder that this music generally registers as “jazz” only in some respects.

“Jeremy Berkman comes more from classical and is the principal trombonist in the opera orchestra and has his own New Music ensemble. At the time I put the band together more than ten years ago, it was new to have him working with jazz players. But”, Lee notes, “that’s true for me, too.”

“Tug” is emblematic of this approach. The opening finds Brad Turner playing a lovely melody over a lurching figure by the rest of the band, suggesting clashing time signatures. When the two strands suddenly line up, it feels like a Philip Glass-ian moment, which then shifts with ease into a pastoral rock groove that allows Turner to play like a modern Art Farmer, guitars chiming all around him. Gem.

Lee opens and closes the album with music by others. The closer is a see-through arrangement of the aforementioned Kurt Weill tune, while she opens with Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do”. Both contain the tonal richness of a jazz big band—that wonderful sense of individual voices combining into something singular—while operating on a path of pure melody, without the usual sense (from jazz and classical music) of being purposely complicated or tricky.

The title, “New Code”, seems to be literal. The Peggy Lee Band is working on finding new rules for creating improvised music. And it is the Vancouver way.

Supportive Community

“When I studied in the University of Toronto, it did not seem possible to find one’s own voice inside classical music. It was necessary that I move away and find people who could take me on my own terms. I can’t say enough about the importance of moving to Vancouver for me.”

Lee moved to Vancouver in 1989. Relatively soon, she was working with the city’s cadre of remarkably open and creative improvisers. “I’ve been lucky with the people who have asked me to play with them. When I first started improvising, Tony Wilson asked me to join his band, and Ron Samworth asked me to join his band. They were both so open to my background and were not saying, What’s the problem, you can’t play ‘Giant Steps’?” They were excited that I could bring what I had to the table. It was a very organic process and a very supportive community.”

Lee describes the Vancouver community with genuine appreciation. “Tony Wilson has been a huge influence. When I joined his band, I had never written a single piece. It was his writing and the writing of folks like Ron Samworth that made me want to do it myself. It didn’t seem like such an impossible thing.”

And being a woman in a music community still dominated by men has barely registered on her screen. “I haven’t encountered anything that makes me feel odd or insecure about being a woman. There has been nothing but support from all the people I’ve played with in my band or playing with Wayne Horvitz or Dave Douglas. I don’t think. ‘Am I playing with a man today or with a woman?’ It just doesn’t come into it. There’s no feeling in my band beyond mutual respect.”

Making a Living in Creative Music Away from New York

Asked about where her creative energy is currently headed, Lee can barely find time to explain it all. She has a new trio with Wilson and Jon Bentley, and she has started a new project that features improvisers working at greater length than in her octet. “I’ve written all the music for that, but we won’t play it until December. These kinds of things are just self-motivated—I write on my own until I’m ready to put it before the musicians. We have access to some grants from the BC Government or the Canada Counsel. Coastal Jazz—the music non-profit in Vancouver—will co-sponsor things and handle the publicity. And the musicians are generous. They want to play.”

Beyond creative music, she is able to keep busy enough to remain a musician full-time. “I’m pretty lucky. I couldn’t do creative music and make a living. I’ve been playing for quite a few years now in an orchestra, and I play in a few different new music ensembles that commission music from composers. Things always seem to come up, including pop recordings. I’ve just recently started writing for theater and consider that something I’d really like to pursue. It’s a patchwork, but it always seems to work out.”

Lee and van der Schyff have two kids, and you can see them at music events around the city as a quartet—regular folks out enjoying the community just like anyone else. Though van der Schyff seems to be as busy as Lee in music, he has gotten interested in philosophy and took a liberal arts degree, which has led to some teaching beyond music.

But how do you plan for a two-career family when both careers are mainly musical ones? Particularly when greater acclaim often sits beyond the Vancouver city limits? “There is no general, overall plan. We make decisions about whether individual projects are things that we really want to do, do they make sense at a particular time, is it worth going away from the family to do, can we do it here?”

Beyond Vancouver

Peggy Lee has been able to do it beyond Vancouver, to be certain. But the city, while hardly an obvious hub in jazz circles, has been the critical linchpin for her success. In addition to being rich in musicians who have nurtured her talent and encouraged her exploration, the city has become a lure for major talents from Europe and the US.

The ten-day summer jazz festival run by Coastal Jazz has a scope that matches or exceeds that of Monterey or Montreal. “We’re lucky that we have this festival time with improvisers coming in from all over the world to play with us”, Lee acknowledges, adding that there is no major jazz festival that includes local musicians as thoroughly and prominently. Even so, it’s inevitable that Lee might see it as a stepping stone.

“We know that the festival is great. But we lament that it’s like a paradise for only ten days—then we think, ‘Where does the audience go for the rest of the year?'”

Connections made in Vancouver have led beyond. “Both Dylan and I have been lucky with getting gigs that have led to more international, ongoing projects. We did a one-off gig with Dave Douglas and Louis Sclavis that led to Dave inviting us to be part of his Mountain Passages project. That’s one of the ways we’ve been able to move beyond playing locally. Also, we have also been involved with the New Orchestra Workshop [known as NOW], which led to some touring with George Lewis. Dylan has taken advantage of those contacts, touring Europe with some great players.”

Lee’s work with Douglas, Cline, Lewis, and Horwitz suggests that her reach could grow as far as she chooses. She is in demand as a player because she combines tonal richness and lyricism with an adventurous embrace of the new. What she refers to as her inability to “play bebop lines on the cello” is, alternately, an openness to “jazz” beyond the usual, to new music improvising that goes decidedly beyond jazz. She is in demand as a composer because her focus is unselfish: “I really like to write for the people I’m playing with.”

Vancouver is home, and a beautiful one. But I have to confess that I hope that the next time I see her it’s in New York or Chicago or beyond. She seems too wise and too modest to suggest that she belongs elsewhere. But she does acknowledge that her path as a musician is open-ended, leading who-knows-where.

“We are always going to be students. I spent enough time in classical music comparing myself to this and that brilliant soloist and not measuring up. The only point in exploring creative music is to create your own voice.”

RATING 8 / 10