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Vancouver Jazz Festival Part III

The free concerts at the Roundhouse Community Centre started at noon and I arrived by Skytrain after dropping my bike at Simon’s for examination. At the present time it is a long walk from the Stadium skytrain station to the site, but the new Olympic line is being constructed with a station right across the street. This site will be much more accessible for the Jazz Festival in 2010, although a lot of people do make the effort to walk, bike or skateboard rather than find scarce parking in the area.

The High School Jazz Intensive, with Chicago-based flautist Nicole Mitchell conducting, was in full swing when I arrived. The young musicians played at a very high calibre under Mitchell’s expert direction. Paul Plimley and I were discussing this concert later that day, and we both agreed that the quantity and quality of instruction and instructional materials has increased since we were young. Instructional multi-media, books,magazines, DVD’s and the internet have all contributed to a positive trend. This access to information and the improved acceptance of jazz, as a music that should be taught in school, has raised the standards of musicianship among Vancouver High School Bands. This nine-day intensive workshop series culminating in this performance is an educational outreach program that requires that the student to audition to qualify for entry. We were listening to the result of a focussed program applied to some of the most dedicated young musicians in the area courtesy of the sponsors and Coastal Jazz.

Brian Nation, the impetus behind Vancouver Jazz.com, was listening too. We both decided to go in to the tribute to Al Neil concert set-up to take photos. Brian wanted to interview Al Neil for his website jazz magazine as he remembers hearing him play and has known him for decades. The pictures I took of Paul yesterday did not turn out very well because of the low light conditions, so I welcomed a chance to to go in pre-concert and try again.

Brian and I compared cameras and he showed me his cool new flash diffuser, he took a photo of me with and without and the difference was amazing. Lan Tung, the erhu player in the next group to play in the venue, had asked me to take photos of her new ensemble. I quickly asked Brian if he had time to take a few shots of them during their set-up as his camera was so much better than mine.I think it worked out because I ended up using Lan’s video camera to record the show instead of taking stills.

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The “Homage Collage: Improv for Al Neil” took a while to set up as there were technical requirements for the improvised visuals by Krista Lomax in addition to the usual musical soundcheck. The musicians included drummer Gregg Simpson, who played with the Al Neil trio consistently before his interest in visual arts became paramount. I had heard Gregg play before at a NOW Orchestra event and I was looking forward to hearing him again. The rhythm section was completed by bassist Clyde Reed, adding his decades of improvising expertise, so familiar to jazz fans in Vancouver. Paul Plimley supplied both piano and guitar timbres to the group as he has recently added guitar playing to his list of instruments that he regularly uses in performance. Paul also performs on vibes, percussion and keyboards to suit the occasion. All three of these musicians are founding members of the NOW Orchestra Society and still occasionally compose for, do educational outreach or play with, that seminal Vancouver ensemble.

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This trio of established Vancouver improvisors started the set with Paul playing the piano and his familiarity with Clyde’s style was evident as they immediately meshed into an intricate dialogue. Gregg added colour to the mix, adding to the symbiotic relationship of the pitched material. After the opening piece, the trio invited Stefan Smulovitz (laptop, viola) and Viviane Houle (vocal, spoken word) to join them on stage.

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Stefan is not only a computer instrumentalist, he also wrote the program he used called Kenaxis. Based on the MAX architecture developed by Cycling 74, Kenaxis offers a lot of the interesting possibilities of sound manipulation with MAX with a user-friendly visual interface (GUI). I have used it on the Mac G4 Powerbook in performance with Paul Plimley and found it very interesting and responsive.

In this concert, Stefan played viola, then switched to manipulating Viviane’s vocalizing with the computer in realtime. I think he also used some previously recorded sample material as well, enriching the sound sources available for expoitation. Viviane looked lovely in a simple, beige-tan coloured gown that outlined her slim figure. I am not being sexist, as if any of the other musicians looked lovely, I would mention it. Viviane had her arsenal of written text to draw on, as she likes to do spoken-word as well as sharing her beautiful voice and unique vocalizaions.

This was a tribute to Al Neil, an multi-media artist who wrote books, constructed visual arts collages and helped to initiate the improv jazz scene in Vancouver, so this was an appropriate ensemble. Viviane quoted from Al’s books during the concert and some of the quotations were also printed on the large video screen by Krista Lomax. Sometimes, visual performance seems totally disconnected from the music that it is being presented with and other times it is too closely linked that it reminds one of the automatic fractal generation in programs such as iTunes. In this case, the visuals added another dimension of expressivity to the concert presentation and helped to convey the variety of work that Al Neil produced in his long career.

Paul Plimley did play guitar during the set and he extracted some inspiring tones from his yellow Stratocaster. It always amazes me how much Paul’s guitar playing sounds like his piano playing, but with a different timbre. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the same person with a unique perspective on both instruments.

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The music was very satisfying from an improvisational perspective, as everyone had a chance to solo expressively and there was a real sense of group support and listening before responding. A very worthwhile concert.

I stayed for the next show in the same venue as Lan had asked me to play videographer for her new group. Lan is best known for her work with Orchid Ensemble, but she is rapidly developing her reputation as an improvisor on the Chinese, two stringed, bowed instrument called erhu. I will try to get a copy of some of the footage to post. This group included Ron Samworth, guitarist, and Neelamjit Dhillon who doubled on tabla and saxophone. Lan explained that this group worked together to compose pieces that became the basis for improvised solos and there was at least one completely improvised work included.

I have to say how impressed I was with Dhillon who switched between percussion and melody with such ease. Samworth and his trusty Ibanez thinline archtop explored the new territory opened up by the unique instrumentation. Ron used his electronic effects and prepared-guitar utensils sparingly, but effectively; as his specialty is creating unique sonic timbres on the guitar. Lan was in fine form as she masterfully tuned the sometimes tempermental erhu to the Western tempered guitar and Eastern modal tabla, bridging the two with creative melodies. Lan also sang very well on one of the pieces adding texture and variety to the program.

This was the last full day of the Jazz Festival and I did see more and go to an evening show, but the post will have to wait as I am off to the Canada Day curtain call on Granville Island.

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