Music festival alert: Vancouver, B.C., is the place for jazz

One of the world's premier music festivals is going on to the north of us, and lovers of live music ought to sit up and take notice.
Crosscut archive image.

Herbie Hancock. (TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival)

One of the world's premier music festivals is going on to the north of us, and lovers of live music ought to sit up and take notice.

Taking place in intimate clubs, city parks, urban bars, and premier theatres across the city from June 20-29, the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival is an artistic, if inaptly named, celebration of the world's musical heritage. While jazz may serve as an underlying inspiration or philosophy, the beautiful sounds conjured up in the past have included strains of afrobeat, calypso, funk, folk, breakbeat, blues, pop, zydeco, electronica, and much more.

Because there is so much quality music pouring out of so many different venues, the festival can appear daunting. When I first saw the roster for the 2008 festival, I froze, paralyzed by a plethora of enticing options. Should I lay my money down on festival headliners like the legendary Herbie Hancock, reinvigorated by his recent Grammy for The River, Charlie Haden, or John Scofield? Should I swing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis? Get bluesy with Susan Tedsechi? Go new school with Pink Martini or old school with the Dave Brubeck Quartet? And what to do about Brad Mehldau, Maceo Parker, the Budos Band and Seun Kuti, the son of legendary Aftobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, appearing with his father's band Egypt 80?

After facing down big decsions like these over several years of attending the Vancouver Jazz Festival, I've developed a few methods for maximizing my festival experiences, and humbly offer three suggestions for how to make the most of your journey to the north.

First, I recommend seeing a blend of acts that you know along with acts that you don't. Vancouver's Jazz Festival is too rich with unexpected sweet surprises from all corners of the planet to stick with what you know — browse the band descriptions and go out on a limb. I also suggest mixing your venues, which provides for experiencing music in different ways as the environments change. I liked the fanciness of dressing up and going to see Wayne Shorter at the sumptuous Orpheum Theater, but I also enjoy the casual, spacious warehouse on Granville Island where I happened on The Bad Plus.

You won't have any difficulties with finding variety for lack of choices — I counted more than 40 venues on the Web site, ranging from parks in the heart of downtown to a wide variety of urban clubs, bars, and restaurants to Capilano College on the north fringe of the city.

My last suggestions is to put together a mix of shows you have to pay for alongside free shows. Not only is this helpful for obvious financial reasons, it also lets you dig on different types of crowds. The free shows pull out all kinds of different people, and it is a treat to watch this music pour out over a hungry crowd, to see how folks react to new kinds of sounds. There are a few stages dedicated to free concerts all week, and a two-day street festival June 21-22 in Gastown when both ends of Water Street will be rockin' for free from 1-8 pm.

An openness to surprises and experimentation. Venue variety. Free shows. Follow these three simple steps and I promise the TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival will be an enriching, exciting, and rewarding musical experience, well worth the trip to our neighbors on the northside.

Crosscut recommends: A few select artists and their recent CD releases

The Brad Mehldau Trio Live, Nonesuch Records

Recorded over a five-night stand at the Village Vanguard in the fall of 2006, this new release from the Brad Mehlday Trio aptly captures the band reveling in their element: on stage. Playing live, Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard on drums, collectively possess superhero powers of telepathy. Their music sounds completely in sync, grounded, a natural fit that is a pleasure to listen to on a Sunday afternoon. Whether steeping in a subtle ballad like "More Than You Know," running through complex patterns covering Coltrane's "Countdown," reinterpreting Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" or midwifing an original composition like "Buddha Realm," the three instruments have a way of coming across as one voice. What they have to say is often exuberant and vervacious, ambitious and empathetic. The Brad Mehldau Trio plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts Wednesday, June 25.

Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions Revisited Zoe Records

Twenty years ago and change, the Cowboy Junkies set up their instruments in the heart of Toronto's Church of the Holy Trinity and, gathered around a single microphone, played a set of inspired blues and country covers. Something unique was captured that day, and the low-key, hypnotic performance, along with the ambient signature of the church, were subsequently released as an album. The Trinity Session is regarded today as a classic: "The way that it captured the hearts, minds and souls of so many people in so many different ways, and in so many different parts of the world, seemed to indicate that something special did happen in the church that day and, lucky for us, we had a tape deck locked in record," the band notes on their Web site. Recently, the Junkies decided to celebrate the album's 20th birthday in an unusual way. "We decided to take the risky move of going back to the Church of the Holy Trinity and seeing what twenty years of experience would bring to those same set of songs," the band explained. "Our goal was not to re-do the album, but to re-interpret it." They brought Natalie Merchant, Vic Chestnut, and Ryan Adams to the party too, and the resulting record presents an engaging, characteristically mellow hootenanny riffing on beloved tunes.

Bill Frisell: History, Mystery, Nonesuch

Guitarist Bill Frisell continues with his prodigious output of albums — each one seemingly inventing its own new category of music — only this time, he's putting out twice as much. History, Mystery is an unusual hybridization of songs that Frisell wrote for various side projects, released here as a double-album. It features theme music the Seattle-based musician recorded for an NPR radio series in 2007 called "Stories from the Heart of the Land" as well as songs he composed in collaboration with Jim Woodring, a visual artist whose strange cartoons have appeared on the cover of several Frisell releases. Trying to describe these sounds with a friend the other day, we came up with "americana/soundtrack," "avant-garde jazz," and "postmodern bluegrass chamber music," but we didn't know what it was called when you played all of these genres simultaneously. Most of History, Mystery was recorded live with a very talented octet including Ron Miles, Jenny Scheinman, Eyvind Kang, Tony Sherr, and Kenny Wollesen. Together, the band weaves their way across the map of Frisell's many different musical styles. Sometimes the songs feel like a gesture or a brief thought, maybe a passing mood; short bridges like the 36-second "A Momentary Suspension of Doubt" or the one-minute "Probability Cloud 2" stitch the larger suite together. I sense that there are many secrets waiting to be discovered in the depths of this double-disc opus. The Bill Frisell Quartet opened for the Cowboy Junkies at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts Sunday, June 22.

Also recommended

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 at the Commodore Wednesday, June 25; Wayne Horvitz Gravitas Quartet at the Roundhouse Performance Center Friday, 27; Budos Band with Megatron at the Commodore Saturday, June 28.

If you go
  • The TD Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival continues through June 29 in venues throughout the city.
  • Concert schedules, maps, and a video previewing highlights of the festival are here.
  • For tickets, call 1-800-FREE-JAZZ.

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