Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Vancouver International Jazz Festival, June 20–July 1

A friend of mine, a man of letters and excellent taste, has a saying: all the best porn is at the library. Along similar lines, I guess, is something that I myself have discovered: all the best prog is at the Jazz Fest. Most of it is available for free too, just like those volumes of literary smut at the library.

The main outdoor stages on opening weekend were down at Robson Square and the Art Gallery. I headed there on Sunday for what I called “Norwegian Power Trios on Rune Grammofone Day.” Bushman’s Revenge provided a great moment even before they’d struck a note, as a couple gentlemen, clearly up for some jazzy-jazz, caught sight of guitarist Even Helte Hermansen’s KISS hoodie and immediately bailed on the show. Once the band got going, they produced an intense, surging, psychedelic morass of sound; very much to my liking—they reminded me of My Brother the Wind or Guapo at times. It started to warm up in front of the Art Gallery, and the guitariist’s KISS hoodie came off, revealing a Sepultura Beneath the Remains t-shirt. Although they were the first band I’d seen, Bushman’s Revenge had already won the Jazz Fest, in my view. I went over afterwards and bought their Thou Shalt Boogie LP from their drummer, who kindly threw in a promo CD version so I’d had a digital copy as well.

Even more devastating were The Hedvig Mollestad Trio, who played the same stage a few hours later and joyfully whipped up a crowd of casual onlookers with a torrent of heavy riffs and, yes, blistering solos. Wearing a sparkly red minidress topped off with an Uli Jon Roth-style headband, Ms. Mollestad was all smiles as she wielded a volatile ES-335*. Bassist Ellen Brekken was equally cheerful, but make no mistake, this band was intent on rocking the place down with their Dixie Dregs-jamming-with-Electric Wizard brain-frying jazz fusion. They were the ideal blend of showmanship and musicianship, and I, just a mere loser, did not at all feel worthy approaching their merch table after their set. However, I managed to sputter out some thanks to Hedvig, hand her some money, and walk away with a copy of Enfant Terrible. It was the best of all possible Sundays.

Friday was my first and only ticketed show of the fest, with Pugs and Crows with Tony Wilson. The show was part of the late-night series at the Ironworks, a busy festival venue at the foot of Main Street. In the years since I reviewed their first album, Pugs and Crows have thrived, winning a Juno for their follow-up collection Fantastic Pictures. While last year’s Jazz Fest show at the Electric Owl was a scorcher, this one was a little more nuanced, suitably so given the seated venue and attentive audience. You couldn’t call what guest guitarist Tony Wilson does as “sitting in”—he knows the repertoire and contributes substantially to group’s sound, which is led by Cole Schmidt’s guitar and Meredith Bates’ violin. The rhythm section of Cat Toren (piano), Russell Scholberg (bass) and drummer Ben Brown has a delicate touch, but never plays purely a supporting role. Nobody in Pugs and Crows hogs the spotlight. There’s always so much going on onstage with this terrific band that it’s hard to know where to look.

Saturday I headed to Performance Works at Granville Island for the Lisa Cay Miller Trio (LCM, piano; Andre LaChance, bass; Dylan Van Der Schyff, drums). I found them tricky and inventive, with a fine ear for extended, somewhat sinister riffs. Miller started with a solo piece, featuring what looked like mason jar lids laid across the piano strings, producing a clattering, harpsichord-like effect. I would have liked to stay for all of their second set, but I had to get across False Creek to catch two more bands at the Roundhouse.

I crossed the water in style, on the Aquabus in the company of maniac axe-god Jeff Younger, bobbing through the mega-yacht maze towards Yaletown. I arrived in time to see 4 = 4, a newish band led by guitarist Tom Wherrett and featuring Meredith Bates of Pugs & Crows, drummer Mike Magnusson and James Meger on bass. Their material was spirited and tasteful (including a Yo La Tengo song), but to be honest I didn’t see enough of them to get a real handle on their style. I wish I’d taken some notes so I could describe their sound here in any sort of detail. Wherrett is a terrific guitarist, though, and anything he’s involved with is worth hearing.

During the break I walked around the festival grounds. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything happening on the rain-besieged big stage at David Lam Park. Instead I checked out the food trucks and met my friend Smash prior to heading back to the Roundhouse hall for Sick Boss. Led by Cole Schmidt, the six-piece played a marvellous first set, sounding what I can only describe as jazzy post rock along the lines of a less bombastic Do Make Say Think. Having an oboe and accordion in the band gives them some folky textures that they take in any number of exotic directions. Debra Jean Creelman came on to sing on one song (as she had with Pugs and Crows the night before) to devastating effect. Any time she’s in the house you know you’re going to be crushed. According to Smash, she came back for more in the second set, but I was done for the day.

So although I chose a small sample of acts this year, I think I chose well. Despite some panic when I first picked up the program and tried to plan what I could see, it turned out it wasn’t very hard at all. Many thanks to the organizers for selecting such fine bands and venues, and for making it all available for free, or at a reasonable price. I can’t wait till next year—maybe I’ll get to see one of those jazz bands where someone plays a saxophone.

 *My best guess.