Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category

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VIFF Docs

December 2, 2012

This is a bit late, but it’s my blog, and I’ll blog when I want to. (Apologies to Leslie Gore.)

I did what I always do in October: see some music documentaries at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). Every year after the VIFF program is announced, I look forward to going on the festival’s website and searching for some music docs to watch. This year’s crop was fairly extensive, but I narrowed it down to three that I had to see:

Beware of Mr. Baker

I really enjoyed this film, but I felt a bit guilty about liking it so much. Director and writer Jay Bulger crafted an insightful and funny look at the adventures of legendary drummer Ginger Baker. With the help of extensive archival footage and many scenes he shot with Baker, Bulger captured the whole story: from Baker’s early days as a jazz drummer in London; to playing in supergroups Cream and Blind Faith; playing with Fela and developing an obsession with playing polo in Nigeria; the failed marriages, estrangements with children, financial woes, and miscellaneous lunacy; drum battles with jazz icons Art Blakey and Elvin Jones, in which Baker held his own; and a clear picture of how influential Baker’s exhilarating drumming has been, based on interviews with Neil Peart, Stewart Copeland, and other ace drummers.

Why the guilt? Because Baker isn’t Mr. Nice Guy. Over the course of the film, he doesn’t exactly distinguish himself as an exemplary figure. He’s left some wreckage along the way, and in the very first scene Baker wacks Bulger square on the nose with his cane. Not nice to break the nose of the person making a film about you. Despite all of that, I found myself rooting for Baker and quietly cheering when he’s shown near the end of the doc at a comeback gig. But I guess it’s often like that with movies: taking the side of the flawed protagonist, who in this case is also his own antagonist.

The Sound of the Bandoneón

If there’s a film about tango music playing, I’m there. Automatically. I’m a tango music lover, plus movies about tango typically show the old world elegance of Buenos Aires, and I’m down with that. The Sound of the Bandoneón, directed by Jiska Riskel, didn’t disappoint – musically or visually. I loved the scenes with virtuoso bandoneónist Néstor Marconi and the shots showing historic tango halls. The scenes with the master bandoneón refurbisher are also interesting and informative – I had no idea that tourists and collectors taking bandoneóns out of Argentina are a threat to tango’s survival.

I assumed a documentary on the bandoneón would talk about Astor Piazzolla, the greatest ever bandoneónist and tango composer, but there wasn’t a single mention of him. That’s actually refreshing because notwithstanding Piazzolla’s brilliance, paying tribute to him is an unoriginal cottage industry that gets tiresome.

What really surprised me was the emphasis on Daniel Vedia, another great bandoneón player, but one who plys his trade as a musician and teacher in Argentina’s countryside. I had never thought about tango as anything but an urban phenomenon, so the scenes with Vedia broadened my knowledge of tango. Some of the scenes in the country and in the city were slow-moving but affecting. Like tango itself.

Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan

Just like films about tango, if there’s a documentary about Indian classical music, I’m there. Again, it’s about the music and the visuals of the country. I’m an India nut: I’m enraptured by Indian food, Indian classical music (north and south), and the place itself. Short of going there, which I was lucky enough to do 20 years ago, a film can take you there. Actually parts of this film take place in San Rafael, California, where the late master (yes, another master) sarod player Ali Akbar Khan set up a college of Indian classical music in the sixties – one of the first institutions of its kind in North America. But there are also scenes in India, showing Alam Khan continuing his father’s legacy on the sarod and talking about the challenges of doing so.

So I got my India fix from Play Like a Lion, which like the tango film and unlike Beware of Mr. Baker, tells its story with subtle cinematic textures. I stuck around to hear the Q&A with director Joshua Dylan Mellars. I have no memory of what Mellars talked about (note to self: blog much closer to the time when I see something I want to write about), but I remember being impressed with his persistence in getting the film done. (Coincidentally, his first documentary was on tango music. His second doc was on fado.) As he said in this interview in CineSource, Mellars focuses on conveying “emotional life” and “emotional depth” in his films, which involves a long gestation process. He succeeded in conveying exactly that in Play Like a Lion.

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Chucho at VCC

November 2, 2012

Thank God for Facebook. That’s where I learned that the great Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés was giving a masterclass at Vancouver Community College. “Open to the public and free,” said the post from John Korsrud, trumpet player, composer, leader of Latin jazz big band Orquesta Goma Dura, and VCC faculty member. I hesitated at first, but on the morning of the masterclass, I committed to going. That turned out to be an excellent decision. Not only was it a musically satisfying event, but there were so many moments that personally resonated with me.

I had no idea what a masterclass with Valdés would entail. I was wondering whether it would be geared to pianists, and how the Spanish-speaking Valdés would communicate with the participants and teach them his prodigious technique. I interviewed Valdés in 1998 before he performed at the Chan Centre – where he’s performing again tonight (November 2) – and his English was basic. I didn’t have to wait long to find out how it would work. Sal Ferreras, Dean of VCC’s School of Music, explained to the large audience in the College’s auditorium that the masterclass would involve various VCC student ensembles playing some tunes, and then Valdés offering comments. Ferreras, who years ago led a fiery band called Salsa Ferreras that influenced my love for Latin jazz, would provide translation.

An example of Valdés’ prodigious technique (not from the masterclass):

The first group, taught by bassist Laurence Mollerup, played interesting arrangements of songs by a jazz/funk/world music group I had never heard of Snarky Puppy. (Wonder if that’s a play on Skinny Puppy?) I  generally liked the tunes and the musicians’ playing on them. Chucho’s comments for the entire group, not just the two keyboardists, were very complimentary. Looking at the young players on stage, I thought about my son Miles and wondered whether the playing opportunities he’s getting at the music school he’s attending thousands of kilometres away are as good as this one. (He did tell me on the phone that iconic drummer Jack DeJohnette will be a guest artist at his school, so that’s not too shabby, especially considering Miles is a drummer.)

Next up was VCC’s Latin Jazz Ensemble, taught by Korsrud. Again, I thought the students played well. A surprise bonus was Hugh Fraser, who sat in as a special guest on trombone. I’ve been following Fraser’s career for more than 30 years, since he led the incendiary big band VEJI (Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation), and I interviewed him many times in my jazz journalism days. Fraser still plays with a lot of fire, as he showed on his vigorous solos with the Latin group. In his comments, Valdés praised the students, Korsrud for his arrangements, and Fraser. Valdés and Fraser have worked together a number of time over the years, so there’s a lot of mutual respect there.

Then two students each played solo piano. If that had been me up there playing solo for Chucho Valdés, teachers and administration at my school, and a full auditorium, I would have been freaking out. But both of them seemed pretty calm, as they were in their relaxed playing. Once again, Valdés had nothing but good things to say. I was beginning to realize that he wouldn’t be giving anyone a critique, even though he could have mentioned some areas that could be improved. But I was OK with that. It must have been an invaluable confidence booster for the young musicians to be told by someone of Valdés’ stature that they did well.

Next Ferreras invited to the stage a 10-year-old boy who confidently played a tune from the Buena Vista Social Club repertoire. This kid had a very steady left hand that he used to keep a bass rhythm going while his right hand played the melody. Valdés commented on how difficult that is to do. After the song, the boy went to meet Valdés and he had the courage to ask if they could play a tune together: “The Peanut Vendor”, only one of Cuba’s most famous songs. When they sat down on the piano bench the boy initially chose the right side, which meant he would need to do the tricky melody. He’s obviously a smart kid because the Latin piano prodigy quickly realized he should play the bass part and let Valdés do his thing with the melody. So they switched places and sounded wonderful together, with the kid holding down the bass parts and the 71-year-old Valdés going all over the rest of the piano in his inimitable style.

Chucho and the wunderkind:

Chucho & 10-year-old prodigy

It was hard to follow that duet but the last student to perform, a pianist named Sasha with a quartet, changed things up with a engaging take on a Serbian tune. Again I thought of Miles because Sasha is also a guitarist and he played with my kid in the TD High School Jazz Intensive. Going way back, they were each in bands that were part of a School of Rock-type program when they were in their pre-jazz, early high school years. They’ve both come a long way from playing rudimentary classic rock.

Finally, the program concluded with Valdés playing together with a VCC faculty ensemble, including some of best jazz musicians from here. It was basically a descarga, a Latin jazz jam session, and all of the players held their own with Valdés. At one point he motioned to them to stop, and Valdés did this amazing solo that encapsulated his immense knowledge of Cuban music and jazz, and his skill. Then he played a montuno that signaled the musicians to seamlessly come back in. During the descarga I thought of Miles one more time because his drum teacher of the last few years, Bernie Arai, was among the faculty musicians, sounding terrific behind the kit.

Chucho, Hugh Fraser (trombone), Bernie Arai (drums), Laurence Mollerup (bass), and Jack Duncan (congas):

Chucho & VCC Faculty

So that’s what I was lucky enough to experience yesterday afternoon. If it was special for me, I can only imagine what a thrill it was for the students and faculty to play for and with such a master musician.

Trivia about the Valdés family:

  • Chucho’s father Bebo is another great Cuban pianist.
  • Bebo is 94.
  • Bebo and Chucho have the same birthday: October 9.
  • Chucho’s son Chuchito is also a stellar pianist, and I saw him perform at the Green Mill in Chicago. As far as I know he has a different birthday.
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Best music doc at VIFF: Michel Petrucciani

October 29, 2011

As I always do when the Vancouver International Film Festival rolls around, I saw a bunch of music documentaries. This year’s crop that I caught included Morente (about a flamenco great), Andrew Bird: Fever Year (about a difficult but productive year in the life of a brilliant alternative musician), and Michel Petrucciani. The film about Petrucciani, who was three feet tall and one of the world’s greatest jazz pianists before he died young, was by far the best music doc I saw. It was insightful about his music and funny, as it showed how he lived life full-on, despite his physical challenges.

I have a thing for characterful cemeteries, like Père Lachaise in Paris. I’ve been there a number of times, and on the last visit, I saw Petrucciani’s tombstone. So he’s there with Chopin, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, and other iconic artists. When I visited, I didn’t know what I know now about Petrucciani’s extraordinary life after seeing the film. But I’m glad I saw the resting place of a master musician.

Michel Petrucciani's, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

How masterful was he? Check out this mind-blowing version of “Caravan”:

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I’m back!

September 23, 2011

It’s been more than a year since I’ve written something for this blog. The last piece I wrote, dated September 2, 2010, was a review of a Michael Bublé concert. Why the silence? I’ve been busy at work and with life in general. Whenever I thought about blogging, something told me it wasn’t an essential use of my time, so I wrote nothing.

But saying I was busy is just a lame excuse. I could have blogged if I really wanted to. It’s not like there was any shortage of topics. As always, I went to many concerts in the last year, and I could have reviewed any number of them. In case you’re wondering, since that Bublé show, I’ve seen the following artists:

The National, The Walkmen, Arcade Fire, Calexico, Broken Social Scene, Big Boi (the last time I had to accompany Miles to a concert – no more hip hop and metal for me), Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, N.E.R.D. (Pharrell Williams), Lila Downs, Concha Buika, Junip, Galaxie 500, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Grinderman (Rufus/Teddy and Grinderman, featuring Nick Cave, on the same night!), Leonard Cohen, Black Dub (Daniel Lanois), the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (doing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 and Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, including the Vancouver Bach Choir singing “Ode to Joy”), Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Owen Pallett, Donny McCaslin, Orrin Evans (McCaslin and Evans in NYC), Ernie Watts and the Capilano University “A” Band, Salif Keita, Robert Plant, Fleet Foxes,  the Pixies, Imaginary Cities, Tonbruket (Dan Berglund), Robert Glasper, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Trombone Shorty, Lucinda Williams, Ana Moura, The Bad Plus, Colin Stetson, Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Richard Galliano & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Atomic, L. Subramaniam, Spirit of the West, Dan Mangan, Gillian Welch, Rosanne Cash, The Jayhawks, Solas, Kathryn Calder, Jenny Whiteley, James Cotton and numerous other artists at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Bon Iver (along with the Rosebuds in Raleigh, North Carolina), Beirut, the Decemberists, Okkervil River, Charles Bradley, Iron & Wine, Marketa Irglova (of the Swell Season), Devo, the Pointed Sticks, the Lewis Nash Quintet, Karkwa, and Aidan Knight.

Some photos I took:

L. Subramaniam at Summer Live:

L. Subramaniam

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings at the Folk Fest:

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Kathryn Calder at the Folk Fest:

Kathryn Calder

Okkervil River at Malkin Bowl:

Okkervil River

Devo at the Vogue:

Devo

And that doesn’t include the band I play in, OEQ, performing at Kits Neighbourhood House and the Kitsilano Showboat, and Miles performing with the TD High School Jazz Intensive band at David Lam Park and the UBC Senior Jazz Band at the Chan Centre.

But no, I didn’t write a word. Until now. Although simply posting a list of concerts doesn’t really count. That’s more bragging than blogging. (I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go through Google Calendar and make a list of all the concerts I went to in the last year. My conclusions: I go to a lot of “alternative” shows where most of the audience is half my age – will I still be doing this when I’m 64?; I have no idea whether my concert-going is slowing down or keeping pace with past years; I’m a lucky guy to be able to see so many shows; and no wonder my hearing is going.)

I’m still not going to write anything of substance about those concerts, most of which were wonderful. But this is my way of easing back into blogging. I was wrong to think that blogging isn’t a must-do for me; writing has been a big part of who I am since Grade 9 (when I had an epiphany, in English class, that I could write), so I NEED to do it. Stay tuned for some actual writing.

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2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival: Part 2 (and a Rush detour)

July 11, 2011

As the jazz festival came to a close, us members of the High School Jazz Intensive (HSJI) had one more free show left – Christian McBride! But before that, I took a detour and went to Rush. Two very different shows, but both musically amazing.

Rush
Yes finally, THE HOLY TRIUMVIRATE! The time had come for Vancouver to experience the Time Machine Tour. Since June 29, 2010, Rush had been playing the same setlist, consisting of new and old material, as well as Motion Pictures in its entirety. Coincidentally, even though my friend and I had bought tickets ourselves, my other friends who had bought tickets were sitting really close to us. It was the set-up for the perfect concert. With the humorous video opener that led to the band opening with the anthem “Spirit of Radio”, I actually ended up sitting back for most of the first set. The first set consisted mostly of newer songs from Snakes & Arrows and Clockwork Angels, as well as songs from most of their 80s albums. I was surprised at how many fans knew most of those songs by heart. However, I was so glad that they ended the set with “Subdivisions”, which got the entire crowd singing along.

After the intermission, Motion Pictures started and the rest of the night turned into an air-drumming frenzy, for myself and everybody else in Rogers Arena that night. At one point, somebody dressed in a Canucks jersey appeared out of nowhere onstage, as well as somebody dressed as a bear in a Bruins jersey, which resulted in a hilarious fight as Rush played on. Ending with a video featuring the Rush-loving characters Peter and Sydney from the movie I Love You, Man, the concert came to a close with the sudden realization: are these guys ever gonna stop being amazing?!?!

Christian McBride
Straight off the bat, I was totally blown away at this concert by the solos by everyone in this quintet. Warren Wolf (vibraphone) and Ulysses Owens Jr. (drums) were especially demonstrating their incredibly dynamic abilities on their instruments. Wolf played licks that I didn’t even know were possible on the vibes, and at one point during the set, McBride called him the “Mike Tyson of the vibes”. Owens Jr. really stood out to me mainly for how dynamic his solos were. It was a great concert that inspired all of us from HSJI that were in attendance.

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2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival: Part 1

July 1, 2011

Yes it’s that time of year again. As most of you Vancouverites know (hopefully?), the 2011 Vancouver International Jazz Festival started June 24, and it’s a time to enjoy the experience of seeing great jazz performances. I’ve actually had the good fortune of being a part of the festival, as I’m a member of the TD High School Jazz Intensive (HSJI) like I was last year, playing drums and percussion. Our director, flutist Nicole Mitchell, is an incredible musician who is masterfully rehearsing us on traditional and contemporary big band pieces and teaching us new musical concepts and ideas to help approach the pieces.

One of the best things about being a part of the jazz intensive is you get free tickets to select shows. These are the shows that I’ve seen so far:

Dan Berglund’s Tonbruket
After I arrived at Performance Works for the second set of Dan Berglund’s Tonbruket, I walked up to the venue to meet with the other members of the HSJI who had just gone to see the first set. As much as they had tried to describe the performance, they were mostly at a loss for words. I felt the same after seeing Tonbruket. If you recognize the name Dan Berglund at all, it might be because he was previously the bassist for Swedish trio e.s.t. (Esbjörn Svensson Trio), which came to an end after the tragic death of Svensson. Tonbruket is completely different from e.s.t. The array of sounds and tonal subtleties coming from all kinds of genres combined to create something incredible. The addition of pedal steel to the mix changed the vibe as well. As a drummer, what I took from the performance especially was the nature of the groove, which was always there. And I definitely cannot complain about the fact that this was an extremely tight-knit band. Thank you Tonbruket for a great start for my jazz festival experience this year.

Robert Glasper Trio
I cannot explain how stoked I was for this show. Ever since my friend introduced me to pianist Robert Glasper’s music last summer, I have been in love with his music, which draws on influences from both jazz and hip-hop. With a good sense of humor to get the audience engaged, Glasper and co began the set with ease and confidence. Drummer Mark Colenburg’s style is very similar to regular Glasper drummer Chris “Daddy” Dave in the way that they both love demonstrating their abilities to use the whole kit, while also playing very “beat-based” grooves for most of the songs. The trio seamlessly played through songs from Glasper’s albums as well as some classic J Dilla beats. Another great crowd-pleaser was how the trio transitioned through popular songs, going through tunes such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Changes”, “Time After Time” and “Kiss From A Rose”. Although I loved the way all three of them interacted that night, what stood out for me was Glasper’s consistency, playing beautifully in context within whatever style he was playing.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
Wow. If I could really sum this up somehow: a perfect accumulation of innovative sounds and moods for the modern big band. I don’t have too many words to describe this performance, but I can say that all the songs were very cinematic, as each song had an interesting backstory which Argue explained and obviously had a very thorough understanding of. The highlight of the performance was actually during the encore, which featured a solo from Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. She just went insane and blasted through the complex changes, while maintaining musicality. I thoroughly enjoyed Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, as the music was like nothing I had ever heard before from a big band (and did I mention that Argue is a native British Columbian?!).

Brasstronaut
As hard as I tried to enjoy this show, I just could not. Brasstronaut was just average for me, if not less (maybe it was the fact that all the concerts I had already gone to were amazing?). Walking into this concert, I only received the vague description that they were “indie rock/jazz”. I didn’t feel like the music was very jazz at all really. I mean, sure there was a trumpet and a clarinet but they rarely got a chance to solo, plus most of the time they were only playing harmonies over the already pretty generic sounding songs. There were definitely some unique moments because of the instrumentation, but sadly these moments were almost ruined by various technically difficulties with the sound.

Eivind Aarset Sonic Codex Orchestra
The sight that immediately struck me as I entered the Roundhouse Performance Centre: 2 drum sets! Should I also mention all the percussion/electronics surrounding those drum kits? Of course the table for guitar effects and the Mac laptop caught my attention as well. The first song began slow and spacey with mainly guitar noodling, but caught me out of nowhere as both of the drummers established a great groove. I’m usually a little skeptical about two drummers playing the same thing at the same time, but it only added positively to the thickness of the groove. There would be times when there were shots that the drummers would both catch, and the fills that each drummer would do in between contrasted really nicely, to my surprise. The performance evoked feelings that were totally otherworldly.

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High School Jazz Intensive: a great experience

July 22, 2010

A couple years ago, my dad took me to see a band of young musicians called the TD High School Jazz Intensive. My dad told me that the high school musicians in the band had to audition to be in it, starting in grade 10. I actually can’t remember too much from that concert, but immediately I thought that when I reached grade 10, I would not be at the same musical level as the musicians performing in front of me.

Here I am today, a couple years later, having finished playing the jazz festival with the TD High School Jazz Intensive. It was a crazy week of playing in the jazz intensive, and I learned a lot from our director Nicole Mitchell and the people I played music with. We played songs by composers ranging from Duke Ellington to Maria Schneider. From day one, I knew that it was not only going to be a challenge for me, but for everybody as well.

Miles HSJI 2

Ever since I started playing drums, I’ve mainly been a rock drummer. My high school stage band plays songs that aren’t as challenging as what this group does, so I was pretty nervous going into this. But for myself, it was interesting to learn from the older drummer and see what he was doing stylistically. Sure, I didn’t have nearly as much experience, but I felt almost guilty at times for not knowing exactly how to play a certain groove, or know what to do in a certain musical situation. I watched and listened carefully so I could really understand the musical form and also the musicians’ interpretation.

HSJI band

I was also introduced to the music of Anthony Braxton. The song we played by him was “Composition No. 58”, which starts as a march, then turns into a really crazy time signature changing monster of a song. Although it sounds complicated, it was fun and interesting going between the different time signatures and also with the free jazz solos, including one I did.

Miles HSJI

Now that’s only one song, there were other songs that were just as complicated, if not more. From what I heard from the other musicians, Nicole chooses harder songs every year. I had never seen musicians around my age work so hard on songs. After this experience, I feel like I have to step up my game to play the best I can if I get into the band again next year. Many of the students from this year are graduating, so I’m not sure how the list of songs for next year will turn out. Whatever the songs are, if I get in, I’ll be ready.